Updated at 3:23 p.m. Dec. 2
College students have a lot to deal with, from full-time studies to part-time jobs and all sorts of other obligations. But we tend not to think about or talk about college students who are also dealing with food insecurity. One in three public university students in Massachusetts is food insecure, with BIPOC and LGBTQ+ students disproportionately affected. And price hikes from inflation, as well as the heavy burden of student loans, certainly don't help.
But what many students don't know is that there is help through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Only 20% of food-insecure students utilize SNAP benefits to help bring food to their plate.
Gina Plata-Nino, SNAP deputy director at the Food Research Action Center and co-chair of the Hunger-Free Campus Coalition, and Quinsigamond Community College student Brittney Richards joined All Things Considered host Arun Rath to discuss what is being done to help students find resources that could help alleviate food insecurity. This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Arun Rath: Gina, let's start off with you. Could you give us a bit of background on what the coalition does and its mission strategy?
Gina Plata-Nino: We have these students who are going to school or trying to make ends meet, who are working full-time jobs and still can't afford food. And there is this program available, which is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP, but we know that less than 20% of food-insecure students are enrolled in the program. So our coalition came together about three years ago. It's made out of Mass. Law Reform Institute, the Western Massachusetts Food Bank and the Greater Boston Food Bank. Together, we decided to tackle this issue of making sure that students knew about these resources and making it a lot easier and flexible for students to apply for SNAP and stay in SNAP.
Rath: So, Brittney, why do you think that awareness of SNAP benefits is is so low on college campuses?
Brittney Richards: I think for my own experience, there is just a stigma that's associated with utilizing those SNAP benefits. It's something that [my] college campus has tried to improve, to create a more of an awareness so that we know that those resources are available. But I think the stigma really just makes it difficult to approach. And a lot of students on our campus have that nervousness and they don't necessarily know about those resources.
It also ties in to the fact that being at a community campus, it's not just the black and white situation of a traditional college student — and it's not necessarily that way at a traditional college either. You have to consider the fact that there are other things going on: homelessness, mental health, having somewhere to be able to cook the food when you do receive SNAP. So there's a lot of factors that go into it ... it's very unique to everyone's individual situation.
Rath: So it seems like there's well, there's two problems in terms of getting the word out, but also really communicating on another deeper level with with the students.
Richards: Yeah, I would say so. I think that a lot of colleges have tried to get the word out. Something that I'm a part of myself was the Hunger Coalition campus movement that we did. As a student panelist, I spoke at Worcester State on behalf of QCC. So that's something that goes with breaking that stigma. So it does have to do a lot with the stigma. There are a lot of colleges that are trying to implement different programs, like greenhouses or making students aware about SNAP benefits. It's just the fact that a lot of them do have those food insecurities and don't know about the resources and having that option.
And then there is that whole other factor of their outside life, outside of being a student. So it definitely goes both ways to be able to have that help.
Rath: And on that point, I just want to mention that people might be hearing Brittney's adorable newborn in the background with you right there, which I think illustrates fully well how much students have going on. You're a full-time parent as you're also a full time student.
Richards: Yeah, I'm a full time parent. I am a full time student and I work as well. I'm currently on maternity leave. And I was able to get the SNAP benefits, which was great, but as I was saying before, it's not just A or B, there's a lot of factors that you have to consider about a student and what they bring to the campus prior to being a student. So it's a lot to juggle.
Food insecurity is something that I have struggled with in the past, even currently. So it definitely is a huge issue on our campus — and not just QCC, a lot of campuses in Worcester and all over. That's something that we have to take into consideration: a student isn't just always a student.
Rath: Do you know, I mentioned at the top, you know, there's two kinds of dangerous lack of knowledge at play. One is, you know, students not knowing necessarily about SNAP benefits, but also more of us broadly not knowing that so many students are facing food insecurity. How much support are you finding on Beacon Hill for support to to help further this cause?
Plata-Nino: Part of the work that we're doing is that we have such a champion here in Central Massachusetts in Sen. [Harriette] Chandler. She's leading the way on a bill that we filed, which is an act establishing the Massachusetts Hunger-Free Campus Initiative with the hope to tackle some of the issues that Brittney did say. ... Through this bill, we hope there will be grant funding available for universities to create more points of contacts, individuals that can outreach to the students and help them facilitate this. Because, like Brittney says, she's a full-time student, she's a full-time parent, she's working full-time. It is difficult for someone to also navigate this world [of applying for and keeping SNAP benefits]. But if we have a point of contact that's like, "Brittany, let me help you out." That really is great.
Another thing that our bill is asking us for the administration to take various ways that they can implement certain anti-hunger initiatives, such as Brittney mentioned, some of these establishing a hunger-free campus task force inclusive of students, and more awareness within college campuses.
And on Beacon Hill we are very proud that we have gotten quite a lot of sponsors, both at the Senate and at the House level. We are hopeful that there will be an opportunity to pass this bill and ensure that students can eat so that they can graduate.
Rath: Some of those approaches that you're talking about, have there been some campuses locally that have put some of those things into place? Have we seen success of some of this already?
Plata-Nino: Yes, there are some colleges. For example, Bunker Hill Community College is sort of leading the way when we talk about the single point of contact. They have various people not just offering food but other resources [like] housing, connecting them and the various students. We have other college campuses who have a food pantry, like a grocery-type style, which we know is not the solution, it's just a Band-Aid to the issue. And we have through our coalition various campuses of students who are very involved as well. But we do want more resources and capacity-building for students to be able to access, similar to financial aid.
Rath: Gina, it's been great talking with you and so much important information. Thank you so much.
Plata-Nino: My pleasure. Thank you so much for having us.
Rath: And Brittany, likewise. It's been great talking with you and best of luck with with with your studies.
Richards: Thank you so much. It was great being a part of this. I really appreciate you guys.
Rath: That was Gina Plata-Nino, SNAP deputy director at Food Research Action Center and co-chair of the Hunger-Free Campus Coalition, and Quinsigamond Community College student Brittney Richards.
This story was update to remove an incorrect reference to the Legislature's session.