Congress hears solutions to campus food insecurity

Lawmakers and advocates are urging the federal government to do more to address hunger on college campuses, with some appearing frustrated about the lack of action during a roundtable discussion held by a House committee Wednesday.

The roundtable was a part of a series of hearings examining hunger in the United States, convened by Representative James McGovern, a Democrat from Massachusetts, chair of the House Rules Committee. McGovern has been pushing for the White House to convene a national conference on food, nutrition, hunger and health — the first and only conference was held 52 years ago — and said Wednesday that he believes there’s a bigger role for the federal government to play on the issue.

“It’s time to move beyond the trope of the starving college student,” McGovern said. “This idea that cooking ramen noodles in the dorm room microwave should be the universal college experience demeans the dire situation of many students facing housing and food insecurity.”

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There are open questions about which committee has jurisdiction over issues of food insecurity on college campuses, so the Rules Committee was the ideal forum because of its broad reach, noted Representative Mary Gay Scanlon, a Democrat from Pennsylvania. But Representative Norma Torres, a Democrat from California who has introduced legislation to help address food insecurity and other basic needs on campuses, expressed displeasure that other committees haven’t been considering these issues.

“It is incredibly frustrating knowing that this is such an important and growing issue, and we have not been able to get a committee hearing on it,” Torres said.

Witnesses who testified at the hearing described the challenges that college students face in accessing food and what institutions are currently doing to help. Sara Goldrick-Rab, founder and president of the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University, told the story of a student named Heather, who struggled with food insecurity so often that she learned where she needed to push on her stomach while in class to keep it from growling.

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Institutions have worked to help students by establishing campus food pantries, providing free daily meals, allowing students to donate unused meal swipes and offering emergency cash assistance, but advocates stressed that there are actions Congress needs to take to effectively tackle food insecurity.

“These initial actions by colleges and universities and a handful of states are a good start but far from sufficient to address a problem that affects at least five million college students,” Goldrick-Rab said.

Permanently expanding the eligibility of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to college students is one step Congress can take, according to the witnesses. Under regular SNAP rules, students who are enrolled at least half-time at a college or university are ineligible for SNAP unless they meet an exemption. In December, Congress temporarily expanded eligibility to students who participate in federal or state work-study or have an expected family contribution of zero dollars for the current academic year.

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The expansion made public food assistance available to an estimated three million college students, said Alicia Powers, managing director at the Hunger Solutions Institute at Auburn University. But those benefits are slated to run out 30 days after the COVID-19 public health emergency is lifted.

“When these temporary adjustments expire, these students will return to the familiar experience of choosing between paying for their studies, paying bills and accessing food,” Powers said.

Legislation already exists that would make this happen — in the Senate, Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts, introduced the Student Food Security Act, and in the House, Representative Jimmy Gomez, a Democrat from California, introduced the Enhanced Access to SNAP Act earlier this year.

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“There’s a culture of ‘no’ for college students,” said Ruben Canedo, director of strategic initiatives at the University of California, Berkeley. “There’s federal infrastructure that’s supposed to be taking care of people in need at all times, yet when we think about people, our imagination doesn’t include college students.”

Powers and Goldrick-Rab also called for an expansion to the National School Lunch Program to allow college students to access the benefit that provides free and reduced-price lunch to students in K-12 schools. Representative Tom Cole, a Republican from Oklahoma and ranking member of the Rules Committee, said it was an idea worth considering.

“If we’re going to send kids who we already know are food challenged off to get a higher education, then those programs ought to follow them,” Cole said. “It’s not like they’re going to magically, all of a sudden, become affluent in college.”

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Other recommendations included making the emergency grant aid offered to students during the COVID-19 pandemic a permanent fixture of higher education funding, creating a national “Hunger Free Campus” program that would send funding to public colleges that are already working to combat food insecurity on their campuses, provide incentives for colleges and their surrounding communities to address food deserts, and distribute Title IV funding based on total head count, rather than aggregating part-time students into full-time equivalents, so that colleges receive sufficient appropriations to provide assistance to their students.

But none of these solutions will work without addressing the root of the problem, said Rachel Sumekh, CEO and founder of Swipe Out Hunger, which is a program that facilitates meal-swipe donations. And that’s the lack of student financial aid.

“Any funding we pass to end college student hunger will simply be a Band-Aid to the greater crisis, which is our severely underfunded financial aid system,” Sumekh said.

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Specifically, Congress needs to substantially increase the amount of the Pell Grants available to low- and moderate-income students so that they’re able to use the funding, not just for tuition but for their other needs as well. And currently, the value of the Pell Grant isn’t enough to cover rising tuition costs.

“Students feel gaslighted,” Canedo said. “They feel gaslighted by the fact that they’re told they have enough financial aid, that they’re smart enough and shouldn’t be struggling for basic needs, that if they’re struggling they’re not working hard enough.”

With institutions of all types — from public universities to community colleges to private Ivy Leagues — doing what they can on their campuses to address food insecurity, now is the time for Congress to start playing a role, said Sumekh.

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“The tide has turned,” Sumekh said. “There is no better moment for Congress to take action and finally end the extremely solvable problem that is college student hunger.”

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