There’s a lesser-known reality for some kids on college campuses, one that’s become an increasing problem since the recession: food insecurity.
When it comes to college kids and food, we’ve all heard about the freshman 15 — that extra weight first-year students pack on when they finally have an opportunity to eat whatever they want without parental interference.
But there’s a lesser-known reality for some kids on college campuses, one that’s become an increasing problem since the recession: food insecurity.
“There are thousands, if not millions, of college students who are going hungry on college campuses around the United States,” said Carly Zimmerman, CEO of the nonprofit social justice organization Challah for Hunger (CfH), which has just launched a new initiative to address hunger on campus. “Students are having to choose between books and food.”
Zimmerman herself was surprised to learn of this problem. She’s been CEO of the Philadelphia-based nonprofit, which was founded in 2004, for three years. The organization got a grant from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia two years ago to develop its curriculum.
“Our focus has really been on engaging college students in acts of advocacy and social justice and philanthropy and giving back through community challah baking,” said Zimmerman.
Now the group has chapters on 80 college campuses, mostly in the U.S. Student leaders on those campuses come together once a week and bake anywhere from 30 to 300 loaves of challah, which they sell to other students, faculty members and community members.
Fifty percent of the proceeds goes to a local nonprofit fighting hunger, while the other 50 percent goes to MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, CfH’s partner in national hunger advocacy.
“About a year ago, MAZON came to us and said, ‘There’s a growing problem that no one’s really talking about,’” Zimmerman recalled. “We felt this was really startling. I had never thought that there were hungry students on college campuses.”
MAZON explained to Zimmerman and her colleagues that “students who work really hard to get into college and be academically successful are put into this situation in which they don’t have the basic nutrition and the basic needs in order to sustain themselves. It sort of blew my mind.”
In Zimmerman’s view, it made perfect sense for a campus-focused organization like CfH to address the issue in a significant way. At its annual leadership summit last week in West Chester, CfH announced the launch of the Campus Hunger Project, also in conjunction with MAZON. It will train 80 student volunteers from 40 U.S. colleges to research food insecurity on campus.
“Step one is getting universities and college students to talk about the issue and understand that this is happening on college campuses,” Zimmerman said. This is not always easy to do because students dealing with food insecurity often don’t want to admit it.
“There’s a huge stigma. You could be sitting in class next to someone and never know that maybe the only meal they’ve had is a packet of oatmeal that they picked up at a food pantry yesterday,” she said. “It’s something that students aren’t really talking about with each other.”
Step two for CfH will be learning about what resources exist.
“If you are a student who’s hungry on a college campus, where do you go? Do you go to financial aid? Is it something that should be part of student services or dining services?” Zimmerman asked. “It’s unclear to us which department within the school really should be identifying these students before they come in, making sure that someone is reaching out to them, making sure that they’re connected with both community and campus resources. There really are very few examples in the U.S. of schools that have seamlessly put together resources to help students.”
The new initiative is not charity, Zimmerman said. It’s “students becoming advocates together to solve this problem.”
Zimmerman knows the answers won’t come easily.
“Whatever the solution is going to be — and I think it’s going to have to be a multifaceted response that includes changes federally, locally, state, on campus — it’s going to need to be collaborative between different offices on campus, between local communities where these universities sit and between the students themselves.”
The official launch of the program will be Aug. 15, at which point individuals and campus chapters will be able to go to challahforhunger.org
and sign on to the effort.
“It will all be virtual so we can connect with people in Philadelphia and across the world,” Zimmerman said.