Many students are hungry for more than education | Opinion
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed many pre-existing vulnerabilities within our communities. One of the sad realities in our region is that students are hungry. While they are hungry for learning and a better future, the pandemic has revealed that they are starving for lack of nutritious food.
During National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, we at HACC, the Community College of Central Pennsylvania, recognize the interwoven challenges of hunger and homelessness and the disruption they cause to the good. -being and academic success of students.
Statistically, we know that before the pandemic, 39% of college students were food insecure and 46% housing insecure. The realities of food insecurity and housing are different from what is sometimes portrayed in the media. Food insecurity can be like skipping meals, cutting portions, running out of food before payday, or not eating for a day or more due to insufficient supplies or funds.
Housing insecurity includes the inability to pay rent or utilities, move in with others (sometimes referred to as “couch surfing”), or relocate to escape toxic family life. Additionally, people may be forced to live in daily or weekly hotel rooms due to difficulties with security deposits, credit scores and criminal records. In some desperate circumstances, homeless students can live in their cars, which creates a downward spiral into deeper financial desperation.
When it is difficult to meet basic needs for food, shelter and security, mental health suffers, creating complex and intersecting problems that often lead to students failing in class and withdrawing from college.
At HACC, we know our students face these serious obstacles. In the midst of the pandemic, the College proudly created the Center for Consultation, Advocacy, Referral and Empowerment (CARE) as a full stop where students can go for help with non-academic challenges. This is a free resource available to all current HACC students. Students connect with CARE coordinators, who help with Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) applications, connect to local pantries, and provide short-term assistance until benefits begin. It is much more difficult to fight against housing insecurity. HACC’s CARE coordinators refer students to shelters, help find safe temporary housing, and guide students to community resources.
Caring employees at HACC refer many students who express they are overwhelmed and stressed. During the admissions process, CARE coordinators assess student concerns while building relationships. In times of support and trust, students often begin to disclose details about their insecurities about food and accommodation. This provides an opening for CARE coordinators to educate and direct students to advice and other resources.
One student shared the importance of receiving this level of support, saying, “My nine year old son and I are considered homeless and stay in a hotel room and finances are very tight right now. This [grocery] The e-gift card would help us tremendously with food as we only get $ 61 per month in SNAP perks due to my [Pandemic Unemployment Assistance] the amount of the services, but they do not take into account the cost of staying in a hotel. This is a HUGE blessing and much appreciated !! Thank you very much in advance!”
After the Emancipation Proclamation, there was a sense of urgency and the need to educate diverse citizens, for education was the path to liberation and a better life. This thinking is rooted in the American dream and progress. Today, education – especially the accessible options offered at community colleges like HACC – continues to lift people out of poverty. The powerful work of CARE coordinators and others addresses basic needs while keeping students engaged in their academic pursuits. Education combined with whole-pupil care are crucial interventions that help break the cycle of poverty.
Armenta E. Hinton, Ph.D., is Vice President of Inclusion, Diversity and Belonging and Title IX Coordinator for HACC, Central Pennsylvania’s Community College.
Vicki Van Hise, MSW, is the Executive Director of Student Access Services for HACC, Central Pennsylvania’s Community College.