As a freshman, McKenna McCall cut back on her meal plan largely because of the constant stress the first-generation college student felt over her growing student loan debt.

McCall is now a seventh-year doctoral student at Carnegie Mellon University, but in 2011, she was starting her undergraduate career at a public university in Kansas. At the time, McCall sought to save as much and spend as little as possible. Groceries were often an expense she trimmed. 

She’d buy old doughnuts from Walmart at half-price — “That’s how I got my calories a lot of the time,” she said — and once mulled over how she could stretch a 10-cent pack of ramen into two meals. Despite her efforts, she recalled shelling out her savings on textbooks and new glasses going into her sophomore year. 

“I think this happens to a lot of students: You pay for a textbook, and then you don’t need it. And that would just — oh, it was so hard for me,” McCall said. “That was just devastating when that would happen.”

On college campuses across the country, an estimated one in three students experience food insecurity. That may impact not only their health, but also their ability to perform well academically and stay in school. Colleges and universities in Allegheny County have taken steps in recent years to reduce student hunger, namely through the creation of on-campus food pantries, but they’ve observed a continued need.

Now, five institutions in the county are planning to ramp up their efforts with grant funding from the state, awarded in January. To be eligible, they had to demonstrate that they connect students with food options, collect data on insecurity and have a task force focused on basic needs, among other requirements. In all, the state awarded 28 colleges and universities a collective $1 million in grants. 

“We had some things that had long been on the wish list and hadn’t been able to tackle,” said Elizabeth Vaughan, director of CMU’s Office of Student Leadership, Involvement and Civic Engagement and associate dean of student affairs. “We wanted to keep taking steps forward and making progress.”

Yet, there remain structural challenges in higher education that may exacerbate food insecurity among college students, including tuition costs, meal plans, textbooks and on-campus living expenses that can total tens of thousands of dollars a year.

A sign listing food pantry guidelines on shelves at La Roche Providence Pantry, Friday, Feb. 10, 2023, at La Roche University in McCandless. The food pantry feeds a mix of commuter and residential students. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

“The cost of attendance is really top of mind,” said Jay Darr, associate dean for student wellness at the University of Pittsburgh. “I don’t think any of us have the answer to that, to try to reduce the cost of attendance. But I think working on providing support and the partnerships that we can cultivate to help students succeed, to reduce the financial burden, I think is key.”

How does food insecurity impact Pittsburgh students?

Rates of food insecurity among college students are more than double that of a typical U.S. household, according to 2021 data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The department defines food insecurity as the uncertain or limited availability or accessibility of healthy food.

Southwestern Pennsylvania mirrors national trends in college food insecurity, according to a 2018 survey of more than 6,000 college students at 11 regional institutions. The survey found that nearly half of Black and Latino students were food insecure, while about 30% of white students were. Students were more vulnerable if they worked full-time, were parents or were the first in their families to attend college. 

For McCall, food insecurity made her undergraduate experience more stressful than it needed to be. It heightened even small challenges, such as deadlines shifting in a class, and impacted her socially.

“I definitely turned down hanging out with my friends a lot because they would go out for food,” she said. “I think they caught on eventually – we went to Burger King a lot, which I could afford.”

This fall, Point Park University surveyed students about their basic needs, and 36% of participants said they’ve experienced food insecurity since starting college. Other universities shared anecdotal information with PublicSource about students’ experiences with food insecurity and stated plans to collect additional information.

At Pittsburgh Technical College [PTC], 65% of students enroll without financial contributions from their parents, and many are the first in their families to attend college. The college asks students who use the pantry to fill out a 10-question survey, which PTC intends to modify to inform its response to students’ needs going forward.

“At many colleges, there are so many resources, and students don’t access them sometimes simply because they’re not aware that they’re there,” President Alicia Harvey-Smith said. She added that the college aims to educate students “so even if they’re not the one that might be food insecure, we’ve created an environment where they’re comfortable in helping each other.”

This fall, students from 37 countries visited La Roche University’s pantry. International students make up 20% of the university’s student body, and those on student visas are  ineligible for SNAP benefits, Dean of Students Colleen Ruefle said. Some domestic college students can qualify for SNAP, but there are still strict limits on eligibility, according to Temple University’s Hope Center for College, Community and Justice.

CMU has learned that students use the pantry not only to stretch their dollars but also to access fresh produce. And while students often share common needs, their circumstances can be quite different. Vaughan said some students with disabilities feel more comfortable shopping at the pantry, and some doctoral students use the resource to provide for their growing families. 

How are universities using the grant funding?

With thousands of dollars in extra funding, local universities are planning to expand the options available in their food pantries, which some administrators said are supported through donations from other campus community members. 

The grant will help La Roche’s food pantry meet an increase in demand. While there was a spike in use during the pandemic, the pantry saw its highest number of visits this fall, at 522. That was more than double the amount of visits in spring 2022.

“That was astounding to me,” said Sister Janet Folkl, the associate campus minister who runs the pantry on the campus of about 1,200 students. “But it makes sense in light of the cost of food and how, very often, students will simply share with me that they’re so grateful we have this because if they get the food in the pantry to supplement their meal plans, they can buy books.”

In addition to using the grant funding, Pitt is seeking to prevent food insecurity by educating families on meal plan options and costs and by helping students navigate their budgets, Darr said.

Several institutions are trying to increase students’ access to food beyond their pantries and at key points in the academic year. Two would like to grow on-campus gardens. PTC plans to offer “food bundles” for students when class isn’t in session. And CMU intends to distribute frozen, pre-prepared meals at times the university believes students are more vulnerable, such as finals week. 

CMU’s dining vendor will match the grant money, allowing the university to provide expanded services for an additional year or two while determining a long-term financial path forward. “We didn’t want to be offering something to our students that we wouldn’t be able to sustain,” Vaughan said. 

Students Yunge Xiao (left) and Airi Tilley work at the Pitt Pantry, which has served 1,355 shoppers between 2018 and 2022. (Photo by Emma Folts/PublicSource)

While several universities implement new strategies to combat food insecurity, some students are supporting the cause and working on efforts of their own. Senior Airi Tilley first used the student-run Pitt Pantry as a shopper, and she now works to destigmatize seeking help in her role as the pantry’s vice president for marketing, outreach and events. 

The pantry served 1,355 shoppers between 2018 and 2022, including 387 in fiscal year 2022. Of those, about 66% were graduate students.

“I found it really hard to actually make ends meet,” said Tilley, a first-generation college student and Pell Grant recipient. “I want to really just make anyone feel comfortable in this environment.” 

Pitt students also operate an urban garden in Oakland — a neighborhood that lacks options for groceries — through the Plant2Plate club. The club plans to add easy-to-reach dwarf apple trees on campus and is working on a proposal to create small, student-run gardens near Pitt’s residence halls. 

Tackling stigma and supporting students

McCall is unsure what resources her undergraduate university offered to support students experiencing food insecurity. But she’s not sure she would’ve viewed herself as food insecure or sought resources on campus.

“I also felt like, ‘Well, I have food. I’m hungry. I would like more food. I would like more nutritious food,’” she said. “I worry that there’s a lot of people out there who are not taking care of themselves or giving themselves what they need.”

In Allegheny County, administrators at the universities that received grant funding said they’ve sought to make students feel comfortable seeking help and support them during the process. 

Sometimes, students at La Roche need “pretty significant encouragement” to get what they need at the pantry, Folkl said. When she notices students are hesitant, she tells them to take two of anything. CMU educates students about the pantry at resource fairs and orientation, tries to show them the produce they can access there and provides reasons for using it. 

McCall said CMU emphasizes that its pantry is open to all students, which she appreciates . Since enrolling in graduate school, her financial situation and ability to access food has improved “significantly,” she said. She’s gained insurance through the university, has a second income through her partner and, by navigating her undergraduate studies, has learned more about “playing some of the game,” or finding ways to save money in college. 

Her experience with food insecurity as an undergraduate is hard to separate from the challenges of being a first-generation college student, she said. Ultimately, she needed to have more information about available resources and mentorship on navigating college – the latter of which she said CMU is making positive strides on.

“I think there’s this perception that, ‘Well, it’s college, you scrape by, and it’s hard,’” McCall said. “Maybe it didn’t need to be as hard as it was for me. But I had no idea.”

Emma Folts covers higher education at PublicSource, in partnership with Open Campus. She can be reached at emma@publicsource.org.

This story was fact-checked by Betul Tuncer.

Higher education reporter for PublicSource in partnership with Open Campus.