Hunger and homelessness at Kent State: Challenge stigma, create community for insecure individuals

In 2018 there were 43.1 million Americans living “below the poverty level” and 549,000 Americans that experienced homelessness, said a Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week website.

“About 32 percent of Kent State students have experienced food insecurity while here at Kent,” director of Community Engaged Learning Amanda Woodyard said. “Many people are very surprised when they hear that.”

Food insecurity is defined as “having limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or ability to acquire foods in socially acceptable ways,” an article from the Journal of General Internal Medicine said.

“Housing instability is variably defined as having difficulty paying rent, spending more than 50 percent of household income on housing, having frequent moves, living in overcrowded conditions, or doubling up with friends and relatives,” an article from the Journal of General Internal Medicine said.

Studies report college students also experience hunger and homelessness.

“36 percent of university students were food insecure,” Wisconsin Hope Lab stated in a 2018 study. “36 percent of university students were housing insecure… 9 percent of university students were homeless in the last year.”

The reason students experience food insecurity has to do with their reliance on their families as a food source, Woodyard said. Once they get to college, that need doesn’t just go away.

Stereotypes associated with food insecurities and housing insecurities make it difficult for people to realize the existence of these issues in our community.

“I think an image kind of pops into everyone’s mind,” Woodyard said. “A lot of the time the image is of an older individual on the streets who visibly appears to live a life of homelessness, like sleeping on the streets or sleeping on cardboard. But there are levels of housing insecurity.”

Those individuals who couch surf, live in their car or stay overnight at the library because they have no other choice would be considered homeless, Woodyard said.

Jennifer A. King’s dissertation “Food Insecurity Among College Students” classifies the different levels of food security.

The different levels of food insecurity include: high, marginal, low and very low, King said, referencing data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. High represents no problems or limitations regarding food whereas low represents many problems and limitations.

“I think people only think of food insecurity as having no access to any food,” Woodyard said. “But if you also don’t have access to healthy food or fresh food you’re also considered food insecure.”

If you’re a college student, it is important to get basic dietary needs. 

Kent State organizations not only spread awareness on food and housing insecurities, but try to decrease the chances of it altogether.

The Pantry at the Women’s Center, established in 2010, provides students who need it with a short-term food source. Each student is provided two repurposed T-shirt bags to collect their groceries in.

The lower level of the Pantry is where canned goods are stored such as cereals, pasta, pasta sauce and more, Student Pantry Coordinator Nitya Mittal said. The upper level is where visitors can find fresh produce, bakery items and more.

Menstruation products, diapers, wipes and other personal care products are also available at the Pantry, director of the Women’s Center Cassandra Pegg-Kirby said.

“I think one of the most important parts of (the Pantry), along with having the resources, is challenging the stigma around (food insecurity),” Pegg-Kirby said.

The Pantry not only provides students with groceries, but also a community they can trust.

“I was so happy to find (the Pantry),” a visitor to the Pantry, who wishes to remain anonymous due to sensitivity, said. “You might not get everything you need, but it cuts down on my grocery bill, so I really appreciate it.”

The Pantry is entirely based off of donations from on-campus organizations, including Campus Kitchen at Kent State University (CKKSU).

CKKSU also provides a pantry for those who are in need. It is a student-run group that recovers food to prepare meals for those who struggle with food insecurity, Woodard said, who also acts as an advisor and coordinator for CKKSU.

The Pantry at the Women’s Center and CKKSU work together to combat hunger and homelessness in the Kent community. 

“We have people that bring us things so other people can have them,” Pegg-Kirby said. “We’re just sort of the conduit that makes it happen. I really see it as an opportunity and our responsibility as a university and a community.”

Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week begins November 16th.

Contact Becca Sagaris at [email protected].