Matt Armento’s first trip to the food pantry on the Community College of Allegheny County’s South Campus was as a sophomore volunteering to hand out pasta, canned goods and fruit to other students just scraping by.
Honors students at CCAC South had decided that their service project would be to staff the pantry during its soft opening last fall. An honors student himself, Armento was there to join them.
But in reality, he was facing the same financial pressures that had brought his peers there for assistance. So when the pantry held its grand opening this semester, he came back — this time as a recipient.
“I lost my dad to cancer, and me and my mom lost a huge part of our income,” said Armento, 21, a political science student from West Mifflin. “I’ve had to cut back on other things sometimes to get food.”
But his angst was eased this month, thanks to the three days’ worth of meals he brought home.
“I got pasta, peanut butter and jelly, potatoes and carrots — the necessities,” he said.
To many, the notion of starving college students conjures a romanticized image of young people away from home for the first time, temporarily making do with ramen noodles on their way to a degree and the good life.
But for many who come to campus from low-income households making well below $30,000 a year, it’s a bleaker reality of having to choose between paying bills and eating enough.
“What we are talking about is poverty,” said Clare Cady, co-director and co-founder of the College and University Food Bank Alliance, a national group of pantries on two- and four-year campuses. “A lot of students are not just supporting themselves. They’re supporting children or elderly parents.”
Sometimes, it’s older adults who lost jobs and are back in school seeking new skills so they can re-enter the workforce. Other times, it’s traditional age undergraduates whose families already were struggling to keep pace with tuition, fees and varied others college costs from books to gasoline and then took a catastrophic hit like the one suffered by Armento, whose father drove a bread truck before becoming terminally ill.
Armento has a 3.6 grade-point average at CCAC, an interest in exploring public policy from a global perspective one day and has offers to continue his studies at area campuses including the University of Pittsburgh. Whether he in fact becomes the first in his family to obtain a bachelor’s degree could turn on needs outside the classroom as basic as what he can manage to put on his table.
The federal government does not systematically survey college students on issues of “food insecurity,” described by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as limited or uncertain access to adequate food, including disrupted or reduced food intake. So it’s hard to gauge the hunger problem’s extent.
But advocates say a hint lies in the growing number of food pantries on college and university campuses. The food bank alliance now counts 276 that are operating or under development, up from 64 pantries five years ago.
“What it tells me is people are waking up to this as an issue,” Cady said.
Much of the problem appears concentrated at community colleges, whose enrollments contain higher percentages of students from the poorest households. But the list of pantries includes prominent four-year campuses, including Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Ohio State University and Syracuse University, among others.
Last week, the nation’s largest public university system took the issue to a new level with a study that yielded sobering results. California State University found that nearly 1 in 4 of its 470,000 students on 23 campuses encountered food insecurity and 1 in 10 faced unstable housing situations.
At Penn State University, the student-run Lion’s Pantry that opened in 2014 uses social media to get the word out on the sprawling University Park campus.
“Thinking of donating?” volunteers asked in a recent tweet. “We could use these items … .”
They then ticked off a list from graham crackers to rice to fruit cups and detergent.
Those who show up at pantries are a small share of campus populations, but at large universities that still can mean hundreds of people.
In addition to CCAC South and Penn State, other Pennsylvania campuses with alliance-affiliated pantries include the University of Pittsburgh, California University of Pennsylvania, Kutztown University, West Chester University, and Montgomery County Community College.
In Morgantown, W.Va., The Rack, a food pantry at West Virginia University, serves several hundred repeat customers in the Mountainlair Student Union and is open five days weekly, said Corey Farris, dean of students.
At Cal U, the Natali Student Center is where students can find the recently opened “Cal U Cupboard,” which operates two hours a day Mondays and Wednesday and by appointment on other days.
“Everybody has a different story,” Diane Hasbrouck, director of the center for volunteer programs and service learning, said of the mix of undergraduates and graduates who fill up tote bags. “They may not be hungry every month, but they may need something to get them through a rough time.”
The bags, by design, look like any other given out at Cal U so that students will not feel embarrassed.
Hasbrouck said it’s rewarding to help students check one worry off their list, and even more so knowing that food as well as cash donations come from faculty, staff and other students at her school.
“There really aren’t words to describe it,” she said.
At Pitt, space in Bellefield Presbyterian Church has become home to the “Pitt Pantry,” open three days a week. The school says the 35 or so monthly shoppers constitute far less than 1 percent of the student body.
Nevertheless, campus staffer Misti McKeehen said, “Pitt wanted to take a proactive approach.”
Advocates say financial aid growth isn’t enough to absorb rising classroom costs, let alone other expenses such as rent. Even students poor enough to receive the maximum federal Pell grant, currently $5,815 a year, still can face thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket expenses.
For families in the lowest of incomes, a median of $21,000 a year, even the lower tuition costs at community colleges can eat up 40 percent of household income after grant aid is factored in, leading to some painful choices.
“Students put school first. They pay their tuition, they get their books and supplies and then find out midway through the semester that they don’t have enough money for food,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor at the University of Wisconsin and founding director of the Wisconsin Hope Lab, which studies obstacles to completing college.
A limited survey by her group and others, released in December, offered insight into the problem at two-year schools
The study involved 4,300 community college students at 10 campuses in California, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Wyoming. It found that 22 percent had cut the size of their meals or skipped them altogether during at least three of the previous 30 days. Thirteen percent said they had a brush with a form of homelessness, being either evicted or thrown out of their home, lived in a shelter or abandoned building or were unsure where they would sleep.
Officials said students can receive food stamps in Pennsylvania but, depending on their circumstances, may have to work at least 20 hours a week or have a child under 12 years old.
The South Campus of CCAC draws many students from the Mon Valley, which has been hard-hit by the loss of steel industry jobs. More than a quarter of its students have household incomes low enough to qualify for the maximum Pell Grant.
The pantry’s inspiration, ironically, was a hoagie theft by a desperate student who was unaware that her crime in the cafeteria was caught on a security camera. Campus president Charlene Newkirk, herself a first-generation college student, decided that a bigger issue than a routine theft was at stake.
So last month, after a soft opening drew 150 students and family members, the Campus Cupboard South held a ribbon-cutting ceremony. It is the first campus pantry affiliated with the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.
On the third Wednesday of each month, desks inside a classroom are arranged in a horseshoe shape enabling patrons to browse items. A greenhouse that used to support a horticultural program no longer active at South is being used, along with an outdoor garden, to grow vegetables for the pantry.
Boxes are stored in cases of emergencies on days the pantry is not open.
“We really do look at it as a retention tool,” said Kelli Maxwell, dean of student development. “If students can’t get their basic needs met, how are they going to succeed?”
She likened it to the best form of public assistance — one intended to move people toward an educational credential that will make it far less likely they will ever need such assistance again.
For Armento, it means one less worry each month as he juggles full-time courses and work study employment.
“I know I won’t have to spend more money to get food,” he said.