Orange County Community Colleges Tackle Food Insecurity Feature Story

February 26, 2019

It’s one thing to be hungry for a new career, and quite another to just be hungry.

But according to a December 2018 report from the US Government Accountability Office (GAO), that’s exactly what many college students are.

Not surprisingly, the number of food insecure students tends to be higher at community colleges and trade schools, where students are more likely to be single parents, already receiving federal food-assistance benefits, or first-generation students.

Because students suffering from food insecurity have consistently lower rates of educational success, food insecurity is also an issue of student equity. In response, the California State Legislature passed the Hunger-Free Campus Initiative (Assembly Bill 453) which was introduced by the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office in 2017 to support the installation of food pantries and food insecurity programs across the state.

Orange County’s community colleges were quick to respond.

“The idea behind [our food pantry was] that it could be a one-stop location for students who need immediate help, such as those experiencing food insecurity or homelessness,” writes Orange Coast College Student Equity Coordinator and Homelessness Liaison Maricela Sandoval in press materials. “In addition to building a larger food storage area, we’ve created a space where representatives from our partner organizations, such as CalFresh, can meet with students to see if they qualify for aid.”

Across Orange County, funding from the Hunger-Free Campus Initiative has led to similar programs at such community college campuses as Coastline, Golden West, Santiago Canyon, Cypress, Fullerton, and North Orange Continuing Education. In all cases, the growing number of participating students not only speaks to the effectiveness of the programs, but also reveals the ubiquity of the problem.

Food insecurity is defined as the “lack of reliable access to sufficient quantities of affordable, nutritious food,” and its negative effects on student success are significant, according to Hunger on Campus: The Challenge of Food Insecurity for College Students, a national study on food insecurity published in 2018.

In the study, 1 in 4 community college students met the definition of being food insecure. Significantly, 55 percent of these students reported not being able to buy textbooks and 25 percent reported dropping a class.

“In spring, we were seeing 100-150 students a day,” says Sandoval, whose Pirate’s Cove Food Pantry and Resource Center opened in January of 2018. “This fall, that number has grown closer to 300 students a day, when we’re open all day. Sometimes, we have lines of students waiting for their turn.

“We collect a ton of food, literally. And there is never enough.”

The Hunger on Campus study also found that nontraditional students, first-generation students, and students of color were more likely to be affected than their classmates. Given these statistics, it’s not surprising that the issue of food insecurity is of particular importance to those in career education, where students often come from these kinds of backgrounds.

“NOCE students, especially re-careering adults, are greatly affected by food insecurity,” says Valentina Purtell, Provost of North Orange Continuing Education. “Hunger impacts students’ ability to concentrate in class and persist in their studies.

“Last year, NOCE participated in the national survey conducted by the Hope Center at Temple University. The survey evaluates the extent of basic needs, specifically homelessness and food insecurity. We are the only noncredit institution participating in this survey, but I believe the results will be reflective of many other noncredit and adult education programs.”

This survey, published as “Campus Food Pantries: Insights from a National Survey,” included 262 participating institutions and was the first-ever national survey of campus food pantries. According to the report, its purpose was “to deepen our understanding of campus pantries by exploring the many ways that these programs are being implemented.”

Some statistics of note include the fact that 36 percent of participating schools serve more than 300 individual students a year, with a full 15 percent responding that they served more than 1,000. The survey also helps identify specific challenges and areas of need. For example, 40 percent of pantries reported having insufficient funds, 25 percent reported having insufficient food, and 17 percent said they lack volunteers.

In addition to offering fresh and canned food, many of these pantries also serve as resource centers, providing guidance and support to students who are having trouble meeting their basic needs. While the food itself is often provided by donations and partnering organizations like Second Harvest, state funding has been instrumental in sustaining the organizational requirements of such programs.

For more information about food pantries and other basic needs services, please visit your local Orange County community college’s website.