As food insecurity on college campuses soars, local schools meet needs
Leslie Napolitano juggles motherhood, a job and classes at Luzerne County Community College.
An in-school food pantry ensures she always has enough food to feed herself and her family.
“The support is huge,” the 36-year-old Coaldale resident said. “Food insecurity is a real thing when you have kids. This is wonderful.”
Cans of soup, boxes of granola bars and jars of peanut butter sit on shelves and in cabinets at colleges across Northeast Pennsylvania. The schools began addressing food insecurity prior to the pandemic, which brought even greater attention to the obstacles some students face in earning a diploma. Most recently, inflation has caused students to eat smaller meals and turn to the in-school pantries with greater frequency.
“It’s a troubling trend across college campuses nationwide,” said Sherri Bouselli, student health coordinator at Keystone College. “Food insecurity can be an added stressor for college students and have a negative impact on academic success.”
Students can access a food pantry at Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine in Scranton 24 hours a day. The pantry at the University of Scranton saw a 33% increase in users in the last month. At Wilkes University, students can order food online and pick it up in the campus mail room, or visit the “pop-up pantry” in the student center for a bag of fresh produce.
Nationwide, ⅓ of students say they know someone who has dropped out of college because of difficulties affording food, according to a 2020 survey by several groups, including Swipe Out Hunger, a national nonprofit committed to ending college student hunger.
At two-year colleges, 38% of students experienced food insecurity in the prior 30 days, according to a 2021 report by the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University. At four-year colleges, 29% of students reported experiencing food insecurity. Last year, Pennsylvania launched the PA Hunger-Free Campus initiative to help students at risk of hunger to access free, healthy food on college campuses statewide. Johnson College and Lackawanna College received grants in the first round of funding.
In the lower level of Healey Hall at Lackawanna College in Scranton, an open door to a room stocked with food helps eliminate obstacles. The college has operated a pantry since 2012.
Child Hunger Outreach Partners, which opened a warehouse in Scranton this year, fills the pantry with cans of vegetables, applesauce, oatmeal and grab-and-go items for a quick lunch or snack. A refrigerator for perishable items will be delivered soon.
Needs seem to grow as the semester progresses, as students may run out of dining hall credits or deplete any savings.
“The last thing we want is hungry students, when they need to be focused on classes and finals,” said Dan LaMagna, Ed.D., associate vice president of student engagement at Lackawanna College. “We’re being part of the solution.”
Marywood University’s Pacer Pantry, established in 2019, averages between 40 and 50 visits a week. As the need grows, leaders at Marywood and other campuses want to ensure all students needing the help feel comfortable seeking it.
Some students feel there is a stigma attached to using the pantry, or feel like they may not be needy enough to ask for help, said Amy Fotta, Marywood’s director of community service and social justice.
When classes became fully remote at the start of the pandemic, Penn State Scranton offered bags of food available for pick-up. The school has a full pantry stocked by Child Hunger Outreach Partners and has grab-and-go items available on campus. Most pantries are also open to school employees and now offer hygiene products, such as toothpaste, shampoo and tampons.
The pantry at King’s College also offers clothing, and Misericordia University offers online ordering for food, cleaning and hygiene items.
The University of Scranton opened its pantry a year ago, in a former house at the corner of Clay Avenue and Mulberry Street.
Senior Brandon Dagrosa, from Hazle Township, and sophomore Kyle Kennelly, from Huntington, New York, help run the pantry, which is frequented by students and staff. In February, about 150 people visited the pantry. That number increased to 200 in March.
“Inflation is hurting everyone, especially students,” Kennelly said. “Everybody needs a hand now and then.”
Students living off campus and commuters without meal plans have the greatest needs. Kennelly and Dagrosa visit local restaurants and stores, developing relationships that have led to the donations of leftover food and day-old bread.
“There is much more of a need here than you think there’d be,” Dagrosa said.
A recent survey by Luzerne County Community College revealed 15% to 20% of the school’s students have altered meal sizes because of finances, and 8% of students said they needed help, including from a food pantry. The college now has a food pantry at each of its centers, including its newest pantry, opened last month at the center in the Marketplace at Steamtown in downtown Scranton.
Through the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare’s Keystone Education Yields Success (KEYS) program, students can receive additional assistance, including ready-to-cook meals for their families.
Faculty members went to college President Thomas P. Leary in 2012, concerned that some of their students didn’t eat a meal during a long day of classes. The faculty association established the first food pantry, now supported through the college’s foundation.
“It’s hard to go to class, study, work and do all the other things you want to do, and be hungry,” Leary said.
If Jenetta Johnson doesn’t have breakfast at home, the 35-year-old mother of four may grab a piece of fruit from the pantry in the campus center before her classes begin.
“It’s beneficial for students who may be a little less fortunate,” the Wilkes-Barre resident said. “The price of everything is going up, and it’s hard on everyone.”
Leary calls the food bank — with an ample supply of healthy meals, snacks, hygiene items and clothing — a “simple lesson in life.”
“We have to take care of each other,” he said. “What we give is returned many times over.”
Read the original article by the Times Tribune’s by Sarah Hofius Hall.