Bags of groceries are packed and ready for distribution outside of Lorain County Community College's Commodore Cupboard. About 500 bags of food are distributed each week. Photo: Ron Jantz/Lorain County Community College

Food insecurity existed on college campuses long before the COVID-19 pandemic.

A 2019 survey, for example, estimated that 45% of students who responded said they had experienced food insecurity — defined by one national group as “a lack of consistent access to enough food for every person in a household to live an active, healthy life” — over the past month.

The needs have only increased as the pandemic continues, especially with its disproportionate impact on people of color and women. What happens outside of a classroom can often impact what goes on inside it. For many students, being unsure of where the next meal will come from can present yet another hurdle to accessing and completing higher education.

At the University of Akron, its on-campus food pantry reported a 288% increase between the spring and fall semesters of 2021. The uptick in utilization comes as university officials worked to decrease the stigma surrounding tapping into the available resources, according to Alison Doehring, director of ZipAssist, an information hub aiming to provide support and services to students.

The pantry, dubbed the Campus Cupboard, is set up in a building that houses other student services like financial aid and advising. But the hall sits on the edge of campus in an area with less casual foot traffic. So officials set up tables with grocery giveaways for students in higher-trafficked areas: the student union, the rec center, the library. The move was intentional.

“Really going out and saying, ‘This is available, no matter what your financial situation is or what your life circumstances might be,’” said Doehring.

Roughly 13 miles away at Kent State University, officials said they are also seeing students report increased needs in unprecedented numbers.

Taléa Drummer-Ferrell, associate vice president for student affairs and dean of students, estimates her team manually reviewed about 1,000 applications students submitted for emergency aid grants when the pandemic first began. Students wrote about being hungry, being homeless and juggling financial insecurities outside of tuition.

“I got to read firsthand what our students were experiencing, and it completely changed my lens and vantage point,” she said.

Drummer-Ferrell said that experience “put the battery pack in a lot of our backs” for officials to launch what they’ve dubbed the CARES Center. It opened in April 2021.

The acronym stands for crisis, advocacy, resources, education and support. The focus is on offering connections to four areas of priority: food insecurity, homelessness, financial insecurity and mental well-being.

Now, when students complete an emergency grant request online, they can hit a button to indicate if they’re dealing with food insecurity or other issues, which will trigger them to receive resources and a follow-up from an employee at the CARES Center. Kent also allows students to donate dining hall meals to their peers who may be in need. When a student is approved to receive donated swipes, they also are connected with support.

“That way, we can try to keep a well-rounded approach and not just offer a Band-Aid,” Drummer-Ferrell said.

Some schools, though, can be limited — by lack of capacity, of technology, of funding — when it comes to efforts to battle food insecurity.

That means one of the biggest fixes can come via policy changes. The federal government did just that in early 2021, temporarily loosening some of the requirements to access benefits in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly referred to as SNAP.

This was significant at Lorain County Community College, according to Marisa Vernon White, the college’s vice president of enrollment management and student services. Food insecurity has long been on their radar.

“We’ve had students basically come to us and say, ‘This is a real issue for us,’” said Vernon White. “Like, ‘We’re really strapped, financially, while attending college.’”

There was a common question, too: How am I expected to even do well here if I don’t have money to put food on the table for my family or for myself?

After this recent policy shift, the college was on the move. The financial aid team pulled together a list of students for the spring semester that met the new criteria, which includes having a $0 expected family contribution as indicated on the FAFSA financial aid form and/or being eligible for work-study programs.

“There were over 4,000 students that, from our estimates, we felt were probably eligible for SNAP under those provisions,” said Vernon White.

LCCC has a staff member who is considered a SNAP outreach specialist. But not every institution does.

“Very few financial aid administrators and higher education staff generally have any knowledge on SNAP, on nutrition, on any of those programs,” said Hope Lane-Gavin, a health equity fellow at The Center for Community Solutions.

Lane-Gavin said she learned that after the recent shift. She knew if it took her, a self-described policy wonk, several weeks to even find out about the eligibility changes, it may take even longer for most of the state’s colleges to learn about the shift.

So she put together a “very informal coalition” of others, including from the Ohio Association of Food Banks. They wrote a memo and sent it off to Ohio’s higher ed institutions with recommendations on how to amplify and encourage eligible students to take advantage of the expansion.

It listed several suggestions, including what Lorain County Community College did in pulling criteria and contacting those students directly. The memo also recommended that administrators consistently assess basic needs on campus as well as train employees at on-campus food pantries to assist those who are picking up food to train others on how to apply for SNAP.

That’s important. Navigating the benefits can be confusing. Current eligibility, including income restrictions, may leave some people who need support excluded. Completion rates of FAFSA dropped during the pandemic, and even if a student is able to receive benefits, there might not be a place that accepts them on a campus.

Plus, this temporary relaxation of requirements is set to expire shortly after COVID-19’s status as a public health emergency is lifted. A few related bills have been introduced in Washington, but haven’t made progress in Congress.

The Center for Community Solutions’ Lane-Gavin believes the conversation about food insecurity itself needs to change. Living on instant noodles or skipping meals during college isn’t a rite of passage. Achieving higher education doesn’t mean just attending a four-year institution, either.

“We have to combat that narrative that a college student is just a 19-year-old who has it made in the shade,” she said. “It’s just not true.”

Amy Morona covers higher education for Crain’s Cleveland Business, in partnership with Open Campus. This story is part of Crain’s Cleveland Forum coverage, which is sponsored by The Joyce Foundation.

Higher education reporter for Signal Cleveland in partnership with Open Campus.