Massachusetts Legislature Holds Hearing on College Hunger
“An Act Establishing the Massachusetts Hunger-Free Campus Initiative” Aims to Provide Colleges Technical Assistance and Funding to Address Food Insecurity on their Campuses
BOSTON – October 7, 2021 – Today, the Massachusetts Joint Committee on Higher Education heard testimony regarding the comprehensive and visionary legislation titled “An Act Establishing the Massachusetts Hunger-Free Campus Initiative”. Bills S.822 and H.1368 are sponsored by Senator Harriette Chandler (D-Worcester), Representative Mindy Domb (D-Amherst) and Representative Andy Vargas (D-Haverhill).
In Massachusetts, 37% of public university students are food insecure, and only 20% of food insecure students utilize Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits (Source). This stark reality, combined with the opportunity at the federal and state level to tackle food access as a basic need on campus, led to the filing of this legislation. Support for the bill is wide-raging. Written testimony was submitted by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Congressman Jim McGovern (MA-2nd Congressional), New Jersey Speaker of the House Craig Coughlin who passed similar testimony in 2019, and oral testimony including members from the Hunger Free Campus Coalition members and the bill sponsors.
“Access to food is a fundamental survival need and all students deserve a hunger free campus. Unfortunately, food insecurity and hunger are daily struggles for some Massachusetts college students, many of whom are already saddled by loan debt and the stress of schoolwork,” said Senator Harriette Chandler. “This bill seeks to empower students and colleges to address food insecurity together and to chart a path towards hunger free campuses statewide.”
“Burdened by student debt, college students often work more than one job while attending school to help meet their expenses, and still have to make painful decisions between paying for dinner or buying textbooks. This legislation partners with campus communities to build their capacity to address student hunger with meaningful and effective interventions. I’m proud to join my colleagues to offer a mechanism to support campuses to engage in this crucial work,” said Representative Mindy Domb.
“The first priority of college students should be their education, but often they must place their studies on the back burner to work so that they can meet their basic needs. Student debt, MA’s high cost of living, and the pandemic have exacerbated food insecurity amongst college students,” said Representative Andy Vargas. “Coordinated efforts to expand resources for these students and ensuring that they are aware of the resources available to them are crucial to addressing food insecurity in higher education. We have the resources and the power to fix this in Massachusetts, and there is no better time than now.”
Members of the Massachusetts Hunger-Free Campus Coalition (HFCC) testified in support of the legislation, including college presidents and human resource staff, anti-hunger advocates, as well as students who have experienced food insecurity on campus. The HFCC was formed in the fall of 2019 to address food insecurity among high-need populations enrolled in Massachusetts colleges and universities. Collectively, the coalition is working to leverage and expand existing resources and services including maximizing student enrollment in federal nutrition programs such as SNAP, supporting meal swipe options with campus food vendors, ensuring that campuses work with Massachusetts food banks to expand food pantries, and other initiatives designed to address food insecurity among the student population. The HFCC aims to promote equity and incorporate student voices in working toward making Massachusetts college campuses hunger free.
Several current college students also offered testimony including Lesley Baez, a Roxbury Community College second-year student who said, “By the end of the week, I have already spent most of my work study check on school supplies and transportation and still have to put money down to help with rent. I usually have to skip a meal or two to prioritize transportation or school supplies to be successful in my classes.”
Wynne Johnson, a graduate student at Endicott College, is a single parent of a 6-year-old boy with significant special needs. She looked back at when she was an undergraduate student at Lesley University in Cambridge. “We relied heavily on WIC and SNAP each month for our groceries and the ability to have nutritious food on the table… These programs allowed me to worry less about how I was going to feed my family while I was pursing my degree.”
“An Act Establishing the Massachusetts Hunger-Free Campus Initiative” aims to provide a roadmap and funding to allow 2- and 4-year public colleges and not-for profit institutions of higher education that serve a significant proportion of low-income students to take several steps in alleviating food insecurity on campus. It includes steps such as establishing a hunger-free campus taskforce comprised of a cross-section of campus voices, notifying students of their potential eligibility for federal nutrition benefits, developing a student meal credit sharing program, creating an emergency fund to support students in crisis, having a designated staff person assigned to deal with student basic needs insecurity, and more.
Dr. Christina Royal, President of Holyoke Community College, said, “It’s really hard to learn when you are hungry, because learning requires focus, attention, and comprehension of information… Food insecurity does directly affect degree completion and retention.”
“We’re not going to solve this problem by hiding food pantries in basements and putting SNAP flyers on bulletin boards that no one reads,” said Molly Kepner, Senior Government Relations Coordinator at The Greater Boston Food Bank. “The more we talk about hunger on college campuses, the more it becomes real, and the more students will feel ok with seeking help.”
The Massachusetts public higher education system serves over 250,000 students annually. College student food insecurity is particularly high among students who are Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC), Pell Grant recipients, student parents, LGBTQ+ students, and students with disabilities. This initiative prioritizes equity and ensures that all students, particularly these groups who are traditionally under-resourced, have access to healthy food.
“According to our last campus survey, 54% of our students are food insecure and 14% are homeless,” said Dr. Pam Eddinger, President of Bunker Hill Community College. “We cannot food pantry our way out of this problem. We need policy-specific strategies that will lead to long-term solutions.”
This legislation and the movement behind this hunger-free campus effort comes during a national hunger crisis and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the state to leverage federal funding to boost our society’s most critical programs. Hunger existed prior to the COVID-19 crisis but has been exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic. While some recent measures at the federal and state level have been effective short-term solutions, colleges need long-term anti-hunger strategies to combat food insecurity, and implementing those strategies is the intent of this bill.
About the Massachusetts Hunger-Free Campus Coalition
The Massachusetts Hunger-Free Campus Coalition was formed in the fall of 2019 to address food insecurity among high-need populations enrolled in MA colleges and universities.
Comprised of over 30 colleges, students, hunger-relief advocates, and anti-poverty organizations, collectively, the coalition is working to leverage and expand existing resources and services including maximizing student enrollment in federal nutrition programs such as SNAP, supporting meal swipe options with campus food vendors, ensuring that campuses work with food banks to expand food pantries, and other initiatives designed to address food insecurity among the student population. Our goal is to ensure equity and incorporate student voices as we work to make Massachusetts college campuses hunger free.
To learn more, visit https://www.hungerfreecampusma.org/.
The Greater Boston Food Bank
Food Bank of Western Massachusetts
Central West Justice Center