Two slices of pizza for breakfast. Two slices of pizza for lunch. Two slices of pizza for dinner.

For more than a year, that’s how Aditya Sharma, a nursing student at North Hennepin Community College, planned his meals.

Four INN newsrooms spent several months reporting on community colleges in Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee and Minneapolis/St. Paul for the project Broken Ladder. The participants — Borderless Magazine, BridgeDetroit, Sahan Journal and Wisconsin Watch — explored the barriers facing community college students, who are often immigrants and people of color.

Sharma, a 27-year-old native of Chandigarh, India, came to Minnesota in 2019 to study nursing. The nearest grocery store to the Brooklyn Park apartment he shared with his sister was too expensive. He sometimes rode his bike to Aldi, where groceries were more affordable, but it took him an hour and a half to get there. In winter, biking to the store wasn’t an option. He looked for 75-cent specials at Burger King and carefully rationed his pizza.

He calculated that at two slices per meal, a $10 pizza could last four meals. But he couldn’t afford many fresh fruits or vegetables.

“Six pieces helped me suffice for the day,” he said. “And just those things for one day is not at all a very good choice. It’s a very limited amount of minerals and no vitamins.”

Sharma wore light blue scrubs as he told his story on a recent Thursday afternoon, between classes at North Hennepin. As his diet deteriorated, he recalled, so did his health. He measured increases in his resting heart rate and a drop in the length of time he could concentrate on his studies. He earned lower grades and had difficulty managing his stress. 

The stress led him to eat more carbohydrates, fats, and sweets. He gained weight, which increased his stress even more. And when his sister moved out of state, he had to start paying rent at his own place in Plymouth, compounding his financial pressures.

Then a classmate told him about the campus food cupboard, available to all students. On his first visit, Sharma took rice, cereal, and some ready-to-eat meals. This semester, he stopped in for groceries once a week. Students can take home up to 15 pounds of food at a time.

Aditya Sharma, a 27-year-old nursing student from India, started using the North Hennepin Community College food cupboard this May. Since then, he’s spread the word throughout his nursing classes. He estimates he’s led 10 to 12 others to getting groceries at the food cupboard, too. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Now that many of Sharma’s groceries come from the campus food cupboard, he can afford to buy a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. And in recent months, the food cupboard has expanded its offerings to include more fresh produce, as well as dairy and meat options.

“I can make different food choices entirely,” he said.

Forty-two percent of Minnesota community college students said they could not afford to eat balanced meals.

All 30 of Minnesota’s public two-year colleges now provide food pantries, and in recent years they have grown to serve more and more students like Sharma. The need is clear: Forty-two percent of Minnesota community college students said they could not afford to eat balanced meals, according to a 2019 survey by the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, at Temple University. And 49 percent said they had struggled with housing insecurity in the past year.

The majority of students reporting food and housing insecurity were white. Yet students of color in every demographic group are more likely to have trouble meeting their basic needs; so are those who are parents, LGBTQ students, students who spent time in foster care, and those who were previously incarcerated. And for international and immigrant students—who are ineligible for many types of financial aid—rising tuition costs can make meeting basic needs even harder.

College counselors and administrators worry that basic needs insecurity is fueling a decline in community college enrollment, a decade-long trend in Minnesota and across the country that has accelerated during the pandemic. 

“That’s exactly why we’ve been focused on trying to put time, energy, and effort in expanding these services,” said Lindsay Fort, the dean of student development at North Hennepin Community College. “We do see students having to make a choice between going to work, so they can make enough money for rent that month, or coming to class.”

More undergraduate students of color attended Minnesota’s community and technical colleges in 2019 than all the state’s public and private four-year colleges and universities combined: Many opt for institutions like Minneapolis College, St. Paul College, Normandale Community College, Century College in White Bear Lake, and North Hennepin Community College in Brooklyn Park. Schools like these have long provided paths for upward mobility to first-generation and low-income students. 

Yet in Minnesota, data show an especially steep enrollment decline among the lowest income students at community college. Higher-education researchers and advocates for low-income students worry that the drop in college enrollment could cause a generation to miss out on economic opportunity.

On campuses across the state, efforts to address students’ food and housing insecurity have accelerated over the past five years. A student-led organizing campaign to fund basic needs has spurred change at individual colleges, within the Minnesota State system and at the legislature. All 37 colleges and universities in the Minnesota State system now provide food pantries either on campus or nearby. As the colleges increase their services, students are pushing for a cultural shift to erode the stigma of asking for help. 

Who are the missing students?

Before the pandemic, Minnesota community college enrollment had been declining steadily but slowly, by about 2 percent each year. But from fall 2019 to fall 2021, enrollment in the two-year colleges in the Minnesota State system dropped by 12 percent—a decline of more than 13,000 students.

“What we need to focus on is the equity dimensions of those enrollment declines,” Devinder Malhotra, the chancellor of Minnesota State, said in an October interview on Minnesota Public Radio. “In that regard, overcoming—and enabling our students to overcome—their basic needs barriers is very, very critical.”

Lower-income students, in particular, are enrolling at lower rates, Malhotra noted. In two years, the number of students eligible for Pell Grants—a form of federal financial aid available to low-income students—has dropped by nearly 23 percent. That means many of the economically disadvantaged students who would typically benefit from the Pell Grant aren’t enrolling.

In Minnesota, the state’s 30 public two-year colleges all operate within the Minnesota State system, which also oversees seven public universities. Thirty-six percent of undergraduates are students of color at Minnesota’s community and technical colleges, compared to 23 percent at public and private four-year colleges and universities.

In surveys, some of these Minnesota students say they’re not enrolling because they can’t afford basic needs, like food, housing, transportation, and child care.

Behind the enrollment declines are financial strains and unmet needs: In a 2020 survey, nearly half of students who had not registered for classes at North Hennepin said they would enroll if they had support with technology, food, and housing. Another quarter said they might.

At North Hennepin Community College, for example, enrollment dropped almost 10 percent in the last year alone. In a fall 2020 survey, nearly half of students who had not registered for classes at North Hennepin said they would enroll if they had support with basic needs like technology, food, and housing. Another quarter said they might.

“We know there are instances in which students begin to pause their education in order to put their resources towards the most basic things that they need in order to live,” said Paul Shepherd, Minnesota State’s system director for student development and success. Providing those resources for students, he said, can boost enrollment.

‘When something comes up, there’s no cushion’

On paper, the state of Minnesota has the fourth-highest community college tuition in the country, according to U.S. Department of Education data. But one in three students receives state or federal grants to bring down the cost from the sticker price of $5,740 per year, according to Minnesota State, amounting to more than 50,000 students in 2020. Students receiving state aid pay an average of $1,499.

In practice, financial aid covers most tuition expenses for many low-income students, and sometimes helps with textbooks. But students usually don’t have much left over to pay for basic life necessities. Students do their best to budget their way through a semester. But an unexpected expense can throw their plans off course.

“When we see students drop out is when emergencies happen,” Fort said. “When something comes up, there’s no cushion.”

For international and DACA students, who don’t qualify for Pell Grants, the financial pressures are even tighter, Fort added.

North Hennepin Community College and many other campuses offer $500 emergency grants for students. But sometimes students need more.

Some additional relief may be coming in President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better bill, if it passes the Senate in its current form. 

“The cost of a two-year degree in Minnesota is nearly $6,000 a year,” Biden noted in a November speech at Dakota County Technical College, in Rosemount. “My Build Back Better plan is going to increase the maximum Pell Grant award by $550 to make it more affordable.” 

That modest increase could help students weather emergencies and stay in school, Fort said. “Students wouldn’t crumble at the first barrier.”

But the increased funding would still exclude students like Aditya Sharma and Priscilla Mayowa.

‘They’re trying to attain that American dream, but they don’t have a lot left’

Priscilla Mayowa, a 23-year-old North Hennepin Community College student, has found that many students who need financial aid do not qualify. 

Mayowa is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in accounting and finance through a partnership between North Hennepin and Bemidji State University, and previously served as president of LeadMN, the student advocacy organization representing Minnesota community college students. She is not eligible for financial aid because of her immigration status, she said.

To be eligible for a Pell Grant and many other types of financial aid, a student must not only meet income requirements, but also hold a qualifying immigration status. American citizens can fill out the paperwork, as can permanent residents and certain other non-citizens (including people granted asylum or refugee status). 

Under the Minnesota Dream Act, which became law in 2013, some immigrant students who do not qualify for federal aid can apply for state aid, if they’ve attended a Minnesota high school for three years and graduated. But that still leaves many people out, including Mayowa. She came to Minnesota from Nigeria as a teenager and attended Champlin Park High School for about a year. 

(The Build Back Better bill would expand federal financial aid eligibility to students with different immigration statuses: those with DACA, deferred enforced departure, and temporary protected status. Mayowa and Sharma still wouldn’t qualify.)

Even for students whose immigration status is not a barrier, the financial aid calculus sometimes fails to account for students’ true need, Mayowa said.

​​”They’re trying to attain that American dream, but then they don’t have a lot left for their basic needs once their tuition goes out, once the money for books goes out,” she said. “Now you’re struggling to afford a good laptop that will allow you to do your assignments. Now you’re struggling to pay your rent, struggling to pay your bills.”

One semester in 2017, after paying nearly $3,000 in tuition and fees, Mayowa could not afford the textbook for one of her classes, she said. The electronic textbook cost more than $100. She signed up for a free two-week trial of the textbook and completed her assignments online, but her professor could not see her work until she paid for it. 

The professor told her she would have to leave the class if she did not purchase the textbook. Mayowa had to miss four classes before she could afford it.

At first she was embarrassed, she said. But then she started hearing about other students with similar troubles. 

She recalls feeling stymied to come up with a solution. “I did not intentionally not pay for my textbook and get kicked out of class because I was being a bad person. It is just because of the circumstances,” she recalled thinking. “I wonder how many students are having to deal with this and not knowing what to do.”

Building an anti-hunger campaign 

Around five years ago, experiences like Mayowa’s began to capture the attention of student leaders, said Axel Kylander, LeadMN’s current president.

“Stories started to emerge of living with food insecurity while being a college student,” he said. “The sort of ​​invisible epidemic that in the common cultural discourse just gets hand-waved into Well, college students eat nothing but ramen.”

Some schools, like North Hennepin Community College, already maintained campus food shelves. But, Kylander said, “It was not a widespread feature, and it was not widely understood that this might be a service that colleges should provide.”

On Wednesdays, students at Minneapolis College can pick up hot meals as well as pre-ordered groceries. Next semester, North Hennepin Community College plans to add the pre-made meal program to its offerings, too. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

The student campaign developed two prongs: a push for more food shelves on campuses, and a push for legislative solutions. Both initiatives gained momentum quickly. 

Shepherd, who started his role at Minnesota State five years ago, has seen rapid progress. When conversations started about addressing hunger, about half the colleges hosted a food pantry. Two years later, they all did.

Minnesota State’s system-wide approach sets it apart from basic-needs efforts at colleges across the country, Shepherd said.

The basic-needs campaign has also found success at the legislative level. In 2019, the Minnesota legislature passed a law that created a designation and award process for schools to be named a Hunger Free Campus. 

Students lead, government follows

The Minnesota legislature passed the Hunger Free Campus bill in 2019 with no funding attached; the legislature allocated funds for the first time in June 2021, a total of $307,000 in grant funding over two years. Minnesota was the fourth state in the country to fund Hunger Free Campus legislation.

To qualify as a Hunger Free Campus, schools must:

  • Operate a food pantry on campus or partner with a nearby food bank
  • Provide information about SNAP benefits to students
  • Hold an annual hunger awareness event
  • Offer emergency grants to students

Including the Hunger Free Campus funding, this year’s higher education bill provided a total of $2.8 million in basic needs resources for students, including,

  • Providing web pages at each college with basic needs resources
  • Requiring schools to use financial aid data to identify and reach out to students who might benefit from basic needs assistance
  • Funding mental health programs on campus

“Something that we made sure to communicate to legislators over and over this past session was, these are not issues or crises that were created by the pandemic,” Kylander said. “Mental health struggles are not unique to COVID. Widespread food insecurity is not unique to the pandemic.”

Mangoes and Maseca

At North Hennepin Community College, in Brooklyn Park, staff have designed the food cupboard experience to make it pleasant, comfortable, and culturally relevant, like shopping in a bodega. In a cream-colored, brightly lit room next to the counseling and career center, students take blue shopping baskets to fill with food and personal hygiene items. 

Also like a grocery store, the food cupboard stays open at least eight hours a day, five days a week. 

A silver refrigerator stocked with milk and eggs hums loudly. Another contains a selection of meats visible through its glass door. Canned goods, sauces, baking supplies, and instant meals line the shelves. Racks of limes, mangoes, bread, and tortillas mark the entrance, followed by bins full of onions, potatoes, apples, oranges, and squash.

This fall, North Hennepin Community College obtained a grant from Hennepin County to provide fresh fruits and vegetables to students. That grant ended December 15, but Lindsay Fort and the North Hennepin staff have been pursuing additional funds and partnerships so students can continue eating fresh produce when the spring semester starts in January. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Culturally specific foods help the college’s diverse students meet their needs. At North Hennepin, about half the 5,000 students are people of color; more than a quarter are Black, including a large West African population. About 70 percent receive financial aid grants. 

During the fall semester, according to Fort, the dean of student development, 200 students visited the school’s Food Cupboard, about 4 percent of the student body. Before the pandemic, the food pantry typically reported half that many visitors over a full academic year.

On a Thursday in early December, Pablo Aguilar, a 19-year-old student worker with his hair brushed back in a mullet, restocked the refrigerators. Through his work at the food cupboard, he’s come to recognize individual students and what they’re looking for. One student usually looks for a few extra items to share with his little sister; another once asked for food to help get through a difficult move. 

Aguilar patronizes the food cupboard, too. A Brooklyn Center High School graduate and aspiring math teacher, he lives with four other family members, and he brings home eggs and juice to help keep the family well-supplied. He also enjoys the Maseca, a popular corn flour his family uses to make pupusas and Salvadoran tortillas.

Though a popular stereotype suggests that college students eat primarily ramen noodles, a food shelf worker observed, “Not that many people even take them.” Fresh produce and coconut milk are more popular.

Though a popular stereotype suggests that college students eat primarily ramen noodles, he has observed, “Not that many people even take them.” Fresh produce and coconut milk are more popular, he said.

When students finish selecting their items, they bring their basket to the scale by the door, where a staffer checks to make sure their food falls within the weight limit and then records their student ID number on a spreadsheet. No payment is necessary. The groceries are free, funded by donations and grants.

Fort pointed to the hygiene supplies at the end of the food shelves. “We used to have a cap of five diapers,” she said, lowering her voice. “But we found out a student was reusing them.” 

That’s the kind of difference the food pantry can make, she said. “If we can supplement, people can not have to do that.”

Asking for help: ‘The more that we talk about it, the less it becomes a taboo’ 

As colleges expand their basic needs programming, students are leading a culture shift: reducing the stigma of asking for help. Melissa Sawyer, a 38-year-old biology student at North Hennepin, has become an unofficial student ambassador for the basic needs programs.

“The more that we talk about it, the less it becomes a taboo,” Sawyer said.

Sawyer, clad in a red button-up shirt and studded black leggings, sat at a table in the humid campus greenhouse where she tends plants. She described how she overcame her reluctance to ask for help.

Sawyer enrolled at North Hennepin Community College in 2017, taking classes while working 50 hours a week as a hairstylist. But when her appendix burst, she couldn’t work and rang up hefty medical bills. Between the medical debt and the lost work, she fell behind on her bills by $4,000. 

Through her job at a hair salon, Melissa Sawyer organizes donation drives for the food shelf. “Clients sometimes say ‘Oh, they’re not really starving.’ You don’t know,” she said. “Don’t sit here and tell me we don’t need help or the need isn’t there.” Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

She was afraid to ask for help. At the depth of the crisis, Sawyer said, she went three days with nothing to eat.

She knew about the campus food cupboard. She’d donated to it before. But she didn’t realize it could be a resource for her. The stigma was powerful, she said. “I figured there’s someone else that needs more than I do.”

Finally, she made her way to the campus center, waiting for an hour when the room might be empty and she wouldn’t run into anyone who recognized her. She picked out beans and rice, a can of chicken dumpling soup, and a box of saltine crackers. “Best meal of my entire life,” she said.

Since then, Sawyer has become an evangelist for the campus food shelf. “I bring people down so they can see me doing it,” she said. “I can tell them. But once they see me, they don’t feel othered.”

At the hair salon where she works, she leads food and toiletry supply drives to give back to the food cupboard. Over two months in 2019, her clients donated 612 items and 300 pounds of food, she said. And in the greenhouse, she hopes to grow fresh tomatoes for the food cupboard.

Omelets with cheese, spaghetti with fresh tomatoes

Aditya Sharma chose to study in Minnesota because of the relatively low community college tuition costs for international students–especially compared to California, another place he’d considered. 

As an international nursing student, Sharma would not benefit from Biden’s proposal to increase Pell Grants and expand aid eligibility. He also does not qualify for Minnesota State’s workforce development scholarships for in-demand professions like healthcare. This, despite the fact Minnesota is suffering from a shortage of healthcare workers while the pandemic rages on.

All the same, the campus food cupboard has helped him regain control of his meal planning and his studies.

Since Sharma started coming to the food cupboard, his diet has expanded far beyond pizza and burgers. He cooks himself omelets with cheese, and spaghetti with fresh tomatoes. He always has a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables at home: grapes, apples, spinach, bananas. He’s seen his heart rate go down, and his grades improve.

He used to spend hours thinking about the food he wanted. Now that he has enough to eat, he can get back to worrying about finals.

Cover photo: Pablo Aguilar, a 19-year-old student worker at North Hennepin Community College’s food cupboard, browses items on the shelf. He likes to take special sauces home for his dad, who enjoys cooking. Aguilar observed that food insecurity during the pandemic caused many of his friends not to enroll in college at all. Some of his high school classmates went straight into the workforce or joined the army. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

This piece is part of a collaboration that includes the Institute for Nonprofit News, Borderless Magazine, BridgeDetroit, Sahan Journal and Wisconsin Watch. The project was made possible with support from INN’s Amplify News Project, whose funders include the Joyce Foundation in the Great Lakes region, and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation in Chicago.

Broken Ladder: Removing barriers for community college students

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.