BOSTON – Some days, Carla Gonzalez only has 75 cents to pay for lunch and dinner. A bag of Cheetos might be the only thing she eats.
Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Gonzalez moved to the United States in 2014 for a better education. She started at a community college, transferred to UMass Lowell, graduated in December, and is now pursuing a master’s in higher education.
“I tried to be the best student that I could because that’s all I could do to improve my future,” she said at a briefing Thursday on collegiate food insecurity. As she focused on her academics, Gonzalez said, she found herself needing to make choices between paying for food and paying for textbooks and parking passes.
Gonzalez joined the Hunger Free Campus Coalition and other college students to urge lawmakers to create legislation granting resources to colleges and universities to gain access to or expand services that would ease food insecurity among students. The coalition includes a host of organizations such as The Greater Boston Food Bank and Worcester State University.
Greater Boston Food Bank Government Relations Coordinator Dan McCarthy said the briefing’s foremost goal was to raise awareness about the problem.
“First, we want legislators to be aware of this issue because first, we need to be aware to take action,” he told the News Service after the event. “Then, we want them to work with us, anti-hunger organizations, advocates, schools, and most importantly, students to identify what are the particular barriers that students are facing in Massachusetts and what are the solutions they would like to see.”
HOPE Center for College, Community, and Justice Senior Policy Consultant Carrie Welton said two national surveys from 2017 and 2018 indicate more than one-third of four-year college students, and nearly half of all community college students, faced food insecurity in the previous 30 days.
Similar numbers experienced housing insecurity in the previous year, and almost 10 percent of four-year college students, and as many as 14 percent of community college students, were homeless in the last year, Welton said.
“The fact that college is unaffordable reduces students’ performance in high school, diminishes the odds they will get to, and through college, and increases the chance they’re going to end up with debt they cannot repay,” she said at the briefing. “When students drop out of college because they cannot afford basic necessities like food, billions of dollars, and federal and state higher education investments are undermined.”
The briefing’s co-sponsors included Sens. Joan Lovely, D-Salem, and Joanne Comerford, D-Northampton, and Rep. Mindy Domb, D-Amherst. Lovely filed a bill (S 757) in January 2019 that would create a fund known as the Massachusetts Community College Campus Hunger Program to address food insecurity on community college campuses. The bill remains before the Joint Committee on Higher Education.
Lovely filed the bill after hearing stories of North Shore Community College President Patricia Gentile walking through campus halls talking to students who didn’t have enough money to eat at the cafeteria or purchase food at a vending machine. Gentile created a program where students could receive vouchers to eat, Lovely said.
“It’s really a commonwealth issue,” Lovely said at the event Thursday.
The coalition, formed in fall 2019, aims to address food insecurity in “high-need” populations at public colleges and universities in the state. The group hopes to increase resources such as student enrollment in federal nutrition programs, supporting meal swipe options with campus food vendors, and ensuring campuses work with food banks.
The event Thursday featured a panel of students from around the state talking about their own experiences with food insecurity. Among them were Gonzalez and Shiv Thakur.
Thakur won a visa after in a diversity lottery. Once stateside, he worked at a gas station for nine months before a faculty member at Bristol Community College motivated him to attend.
Thakur took English classes for almost a year. At the time, he took 19 to 21 credits and said he did not have time to buy food. A faculty member informed him of a food bank where he could receive a monthly meal. At the event, he asked lawmakers to consider making a mobile food market that would distribute meals twice a week.
“I didn’t have enough food to continue for a whole month,” he said. “By like the second or third week ... I didn’t have enough money to buy food because I was taking a lot of classes and involved in all the extra curriculum.”