“It’s like they think that just because we’re poor, we’re not allowed to have nice things! They don’t realize how much work it takes not to look poor. What is looking poor even supposed to look like?” In expressing frustration over having to justify why she gets manicures, one low-income Muhlenberg student speaks to a larger issue: the invisibility of financial hardship. 

“Across all campuses, we know that financial aid is not sufficient to cover all the costs of attending college,” explains Christine Baker-Smith O’Malley, managing director and director of research at The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice. “Grants, loans, all of that is intended to cover tuition and sometimes books and fees, but it certainly doesn’t cover living costs.” 

The Hope Center, based at Temple University, is a leading institution in the fight against campus food insecurity and their research has shown that food insecurity is an issue that needs to be tackled on our college campuses across the nation. “The people who are attending college today are not the people for whom those systems were designed,” says Baker-Smith O’Malley. The founder of the Hope Center, Sarah Goldrick-Rab, adds, “Existing investments in financial aid will be undermined as students drop out simply because they don’t have enough to eat.”

A recent study from the Hope Center found that 42% of students at four-year universities across the country are food insecure. Food insecurity is characterized by many indicators, among which are not knowing where one’s next meal is coming from, worry that one’s food will run out before they can afford to buy more, eating less or skipping meals to save money or make food last longer, or not eating for days on end. 

Food insecurity has also been repeatedly linked to issues in academic performance and mental health for college students. “Food insecurity is a chronic problem, and it’s an acute problem,” says Alison Harmon, a professor at Montana State University who researches food insecurity. “When you’re getting families or individuals that aren’t getting enough to eat, they’re suffering acutely from that. That acute suffering is going to impact their behavior and their ability to learn. The chronic problem is that, over time, your whole mental health and behavior around food changes.” 

Baker-Smith O’Malley enumerated the different ways students can fall into hunger while on campus, from sending home what little money they make to struggling relatives rather than using it to buy food for themselves, or a unique problem faced by many student athletes. “Student athletes, at private and public institutions, have all kinds of requirements for going to practice and going to games,” explains says Baker-Smith O’Malley. “Well, if they’re at practice or games, and the cafeteria closes, where are they getting food? We’ve heard some really interesting stories about that, where, if they’re on the road for two days, they’re expected to buy their own food. And they have a cafeteria pass, but they’re not on campus.” This issue is complicated by the fact that student athletes at elite institutions can lose their player eligibility, and then their scholarships, for taking any outside money to fill the gaps in their aid.

Food insecurity flies under the radar for most students at Muhlenberg. Even leading student advocates at Muhlenberg have very little sense of the real extent of the issue on campus. Gabi Solomon ‘20 and Natalie David ‘22, co-presidents of Muhlenberg’s chapter of Challah for Hunger, were both drawn to the national organization in an effort to find Jewish fellowship, to bake, and to engage in activism surrounding campus hunger. Challah for Hunger is a national Jewish service organization led by students, where participants bake and sell challah to fund efforts against both campus and community insecurity.

David was particularly struck by the issue of campus hunger because it seemed so contrary to her notions of what college should be. “When you think of college, you think of the freshman fifteen, you think of late night studying with your friends and pizza parties, you don’t think of people struggling to choose between their textbooks or their next meal.” 

But both young women said they hadn’t suffered personally from food insecurity, and didn’t seem to have much specific involvement with students who had suffered, despite serving on boards to help implement the swipe donation program and the M.U.L.E. Cabinet. They were very passionate about the issue, but any time I pushed for details, they tended to parrot all of Muhlenberg’s and The Hope Center’s materials and statistics, rather than pointing to any compelling stories they had seen or people they had helped. This speaks to a larger invisibility of the issue if the students on the front lines are unaware of the scope of food insecurity on their own campus.

This isn’t particularly unsurprising though, as much of The Hope Center’s data is based around community and public colleges, and it is one of the only institutes actively researching the issue of campus hunger. Issues of food insecurity don’t always present in similar ways at public schools as at private institutions like Muhlenberg, in part due to mandatory campus housing and meal plans and a much lower proportion of commuter students. As one student said, “It’s not half as insecure as when I’m at home. I wouldn’t classify myself as insecure at school because there is the M.U.L.E. cabinet and the dining hall,” as opposed to her home, where her family relies on food stamps.

Despite this inherent invisibility, Muhlenberg has been active in its efforts to get a better idea of how students may be suffering from food insecurity and financial hardship at large. In fall 2018, a steering committee was formed to address issues of financial hardship, including a basic needs subcommittee. The committee included staff from key College offices and eight students, who worked to create both long- and short-term goals for the College to ameliorate financial hardship. Muhlenberg participated in the 2019 nationwide Hope Center survey, as well as administering their own in spring 2018 to assess the impact of hidden costs on the experiences of Muhlenberg students, where one third of students listed Muhlenberg’s larger-than-average compulsory meal plan as a cost that impacted their ability to engage in College life.

In October of 2019, Muhlenberg invited Tony Jack, author of “The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students” to campus. Jack’s research surrounds two college groups: the “privileged poor” (poor students who went from rigorous prep schools to elite universities) and the “doubly disadvantaged” (poor students who received public education and who often feel out of depth in privileged spaces). He is one of the only researchers into financial hardship who focuses on private institutions like Muhlenberg. The College bought more than 150 copies of Jack’s book and gave them to faculty and students in advance of his visit, where he both gave a lecture summarizing his research and had a private dinner with disadvantaged students. Jack was also set to be the Commencement speaker for the class of 2020 and is to be given an honorary Muhlenberg degree due to his work in examining the inequalities wrought by financial hardship. 

Muhlenberg has also implemented structural change to better support disadvantaged students. As a result of the work of the basic needs subcommittee, Muhlenberg set seven goals for the 2019-2020 school year, covering issues from food security to transportation, with a focus on making all these new programs easy to access. All seven goals were met. This fall, Muhlenberg College established three new programs on campus to combat campus food insecurity: a leftovers text alert system; a swipe donation program; and the Muhlenberg Useful Living Essentials (M.U.L.E.) Community Cabinet, a student resource that provides free non-perishable food and hygiene items. These programs are in addition to experiential learning and emergency grants to give money directly to the students who need them most. The College also set three long-term goals: change the way they price housing to make M.I.L.E. and suite options more accessible to low-income students, create housing and dining options for break periods for students who can’t go home, and alter laundry costs. It is important to note that the rates at which students actually utilize these services will be central to their success. 

“One of the biggest issues with social benefits, with government provided benefits, is what we call ‘take up,’ which is that people don’t use or request the benefits they are eligible for,” explains Baker-Smith O’Malley. “And one of the biggest reasons for this, we think, is shame. It’s embarrassing to ask for help.” 

“So, I mean, before this whole thing happened, the pandemic, my mom and I would go to the grocery store, she was too ashamed to use the food stamps,” explained one student. “And so my mom, whenever we checked out, she would always… go away. And then she’d suddenly come back out when we were leaving the store. And my aunt is the same way.

“And then also like reaching out to Dean Gulati–it’s not fun. You go kind of with your tail beneath your legs, like, ‘Hi, please help.’ And of course they’re so nice. And they’re like, ‘Yeah, of course we’ll help,’” she continued.

But as of February, there had been more than 200 unique visitors to the M.U.L.E. Cabinet, and 71 unique experiential learning grant recipients for a total of over $10,000. Data is not available pre-COVID on the emergency fund, which was kept significantly more confidential because of the kinds of hardships that tend to fuel requests. As Dean of Students Alison Gulati put it, “It’s not about handouts. It’s about creating an equitable experience at the college. And it’s also about reducing the stigma and shame that any one of us feel when we experience those hardships.”

When asked if financial hardship affected her social life at Muhlenberg, the student denied it having much of an effect, but she did concede that there were differences between her life and those of some other students. “I think I live two different lives at Muhlenberg. I live my sorority’s life, and then I live my other friends’ life… So my sorority friends? They had more money, I think, to go out and go to the Tav every night. I’m not a big drinker, though, so that was never an issue for me. But with my other friends, we all had work-study jobs, so every single one of us were working for our money on campus and so we all got paid at the same time. We would all kind of go out to dinner at the same time. That’d be like our one social thing, or go to the Tav maybe once every two weeks.”

But working for money on campus and going to the Tavern on Liberty all stopped when Muhlenberg made the decision to send students home in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Students were warned on Tuesday, March 10th at 8:46 p.m. that they had until that Saturday at 2 p.m. to leave campus and, collectively, students lost their minds. With very little time and no indication of whether they’d be returning after April 13, students’ responses ranged from packing the bare essentials to moving out entirely. Students who wished to stay had to fill out an application to prove why it was necessary. Some stayed because of international student visa requirements, or homes in coronavirus hotspots, or because it’d cost too much to go home. The dining hall remained open for some amount of time, but the details are hazy as to how it functioned or what campus was like, as the students that I reached out to were not willing to comment. The M.U.L.E. Cabinet remained open, with Chaplain Kristen Glass-Perez commenting that “We would be in a really different place with supporting our students who remain on campus if we had not already had the M.U.L.E. in place.” While any number of institutional supports can make the difference in keeping a student fed and on campus, with COVID-19 displacing so many students we must ask what happens when they are stripped of those supports and returned to sometimes even more unstable home environments.

Since the College closed in March, $45,000 in emergency grants went to 134 students to fund everything from food and medical assistance to relocation costs to tech needs. This fund was supported both by individual donations and the contribution of the former SGA overflow account. These funds are essential to empowering students to continue their education. Muhlenberg was also approved for $809,954 specifically for student grants for expenses due to disruption during the onset of the coronavirus crisis as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Students can apply for grants from Muhlenberg itself on a rolling basis and those eligible to apply for CARES grants will be notified by email on May 11th for further action.

Michele Paules, student support coordinator, said there has been an increase in requests to cover the costs of remote learning, such as laptops, internet access and textbooks that can’t be borrowed from friends. According to a 2019 analysis by the Associated Press, about 17 percent of students nationwide lack a computer at home, and eighteen percent lack broadband internet access. Low-income families and families of color are especially likely to be without these resources. Rural areas face similar issues of internet accessibility. “This transition is difficult for me because it’s unclear how classes are going to work,” said Caya Layman ‘22. “I have limited internet access at home because I live in a rural area where WiFi plans are expensive, so it will be tricky to navigate online classes which require streaming or downloading.” 

Going home also affects students’ ability to earn. Work study positions may not work remotely or tutees may decide to take a class pass/fail, so student workers who rely on that income are left in the lurch. For low-income students, this could be devastating. Luckily, Muhlenberg released a plan to partially reimburse the room and board all residential students who went home, depending on what portion of their total college costs are in grants versus paid directly or through loans. Student workers will also be receiving payments at the end of May for any reduced hours due to COVID-19, based on the number of hours they worked during the beginning of the semester. Paules also reported that many students are requesting funds not for themselves, but for their families as they file for unemployment.

One student I spoke to used one grant to pay her family’s electrical bill and another to buy more groceries for her family after their food stamps ran out early due to the extra stress of her being home and her younger cousins not receiving school lunch each day. She said the school gave her even more than she originally requested, which made home easier on her family’s finances.

She spoke to the difficult decision to leave campus, saying, “I’m very happy that I decided to go home. I chose to go home because I was like, if something happens, I need to be with my mom and my home. Life right now especially is not ideal. But I just was thinking like, I just need to be with my mom. Going home, that’s one more mouth to feed on the already stressed food stamps that we get. And then there’s one more person at home, especially during a pandemic. But in the suite, I would’ve been alone, and that would have been sad. I’d rather be extremely crowded, I think, at home with love and stuff, despite the insecurity and despite all the other things that it brings.”

Financial hardship and food insecurity, at their core, affect students’ abilities to feel at home at school, whether through shame or feeling like their problems are invisible, and those issues have only been made worse as inequalities are thrust into the spotlight during this pandemic. “So part of food insecurity is access to nutrition, the right nutritional food and then knowing how to prepare food,” said Glass-Perez. “I think — this is me speaking as a chaplain — I think loneliness is an issue. And so I think at its core, ensuring that students’ basic needs are met is a matter of radical hospitality, which is part of the mission of Muhlenberg College. How can we bring people together across different backgrounds?”

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

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