Insecure and invisible: Problems with food access go unnoticed at Kent State



Jenna Kuczkowski

Between a quarter and a half of Kent State students may struggle to afford a balanced diet – or even enough food.

Alexia Castillo, a junior communication studies major, is among them.

“I miss just worrying about studying and having school be my number one priority, while not having to worry about how I’m going to live off eating only pb&j and eggs,” Castillo said.

Castillo lives off campus in a house. She estimates she probably eats peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and eggs – for the day – at least three times a week, since “it’s cheap and it fills (her) up.”

Castillo is dealing with what the U.S. Department of Agriculture calls “food insecurity.” 

Food insecurity means not being able to afford or have access to healthy, balanced meals, which can include going without food at times. According to a growing number of studies being done on college campuses across the nation, food insecurity is on the rise as tuition, housing and other living expenses become increasingly expensive.

“I have big payments like my rent and my car that affect my budget — and my job doesn’t give me many hours — so recently, I’ve been trying to find a job with reasonable hours to just be able to make it by,” Castillo said.

A 2014 email survey of 300 Kent State students, which used USDA food security survey questions, found that almost 50 percent of the students surveyed were food insecure and 25 percent of those students had a very low level of food security. That projects to as many as 14,000 students. 

The survey results concluded that students with the highest risk of food insecurity were ones living off campus with someone other than their parents or alone.   

A similar study was conducted in 2015 by Kent State graduate student Jennifer Marks as part of her thesis. She found 22 percent of students – about 6,000 – were food insecure.

Surveys at several other campuses show similar numbers.

In 2010, the City University of New York found that about 40 percent of its students experienced food insecurity in the past 12 months; Those numbers were higher among students who worked at least 20 hours per week.

A 2014 study at Oregon State University found that 59 percent of students there were food insecure at some point during the previous year, which reportedly caused issues involving their academic success, as well as physical and emotional health.

Cassandra Pegg-Kirby, who is the assistant director of the Women’s Center on campus as well as the center’s food pantry, said she feels food insecurity at the college level may be disregarded by people because they believe if students can afford college, they must be able to afford food or even have too much food (as in the “freshman 15”).

“I think on our campus and a number of campuses, there are people right on the edge of being able to do that and attend college,” Pegg-Kirby said. “I think a number of our students are making it work, but if one thing changes in their life — like a high heating bill or not getting enough hours at work — that can be enough to get them off track.”

Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, studied food insecurity at community colleges in 2015. She published a report of her findings, titled “Hungry to Learn: Addressing Food & Housing Insecurity Among Undergraduates.” Her findings included two basic types of food insecure students: 

Those who were in the lower-middle class before they started college and were forced by their education expenses to deal with food insecurity for the first time, and those who were in poverty before college; in their case, hunger and poverty were a preexisting condition.

The Southern Education Foundation reported that 51 percent of students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade in the 2012-2013 school year were eligible for the federal program that provides free and reduced-price lunches.

Marks, author of the second study of food insecurity done at Kent State, said while grades K-12 have federal programs in place to provide food to students in need, that aid disappears when they get to college. She said because these students may not qualify for federal aid programs like food stamps, and their families can’t help support them, they don’t receive the help they need at college.   

“I found that they’re living in a donut hole,” Marks said.

For the group of students who are experiencing food insecurity for the first time, there comes another issue: the meal plan.

Kent State’s meal plan costs between $1,800 to $2,700 a semester. Some students move off campus to cut costs – even if it means violating the policy that requires first and second-year students to live on campus unless they commute. Students will often get their parents to say they’re staying at home just so they can get an apartment off-campus and save money.

Castillo initially moved off campus to find cheaper housing and avoid the meal plan, but said she may consider a commuter meal plan.

“The food is overpriced,” she said. “On a weekly basis, I would spend around $80 on the meal plan and that just seems ridiculous. Now, I usually spend $30-$40 on my groceries, and I’ll be set for at least two weeks on necessities.”

The problem with students trying to budget their food money on their own, Pegg-Kirby said, is sometimes unexpected expenses force students to take money from their food budget. 

Most students aren’t eligible for the federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the successor to food stamps. 

 “It’s harder for students to qualify for food stamps with how many hours they’re in class or studying and stipulations that make it more difficult for students to get resources,” Pegg-Kirby said. “Also, international students struggle because they’re unable to get those kinds of resources at all. International students are not available for county resources in the same way.”

Other resources are available off-campus, but students often have limited transportation options to reach them, Pegg-Kirby said.

Emanuel Jackson, a 21-year-old Kent State student, said he didn’t even know food aid existed for college students. 

And even then, “I believe some students are embarrassed to get help due to not wanting to be perceived as needy or struggling,” Jackson said. “Their pride may get the best of them.”

Jackson lives in an apartment and works two jobs to afford rent and other billed expenses. He said he doesn’t usually have a lot of money to afford groceries or the time to cook. Jackson estimates he spends around $20 a week on food and on occasion has gone without food for a day other than a snack. 

Without proper nutrition, students can be negatively impacted academically, physically and emotionally. 

Various studies, including one done by researchers from the University of Iowa’s Center for Research on Undergraduate Education in 2009, show students who work 10 to 15 hours weekly see positive impacts on grades, while students who are working more than 20 hours weekly have lower GPAs. 

The paradox is that SNAP requires students to work 20 hours weekly to receive federal benefits. So students are left to decide to work more, get lower grades so they can qualify, and afford food – or to work fewer hours to try to get better grades but go hungry, which studies show leads to lower grades.

“It’s a frustrating issue dealing with such a large university who is interested in their students’ academic success and in tuning out productive and engaging members of society,” Marks said. “But this can’t happen when so many students don’t have access to food on a regular basis that is nourishing for their bodies and minds.” 

Pegg-Kirby said it’s as simple as this: 

“If your basic needs aren’t met and you’re not eating, it’s going to be really hard to get your school work done and really hard to not pay attention to those hunger pains.”

Pegg-Kirby said faculty members have donated grocery gift cards to the Women’s Center pantry after talking with struggling students and realizing it was a result of them not being able to eat.

Five years ago, the Women’s Center opened Kent State’s only food pantry.

“I think of it as, ‘Maybe if we can get food in your belly and you don’t have to worry about it, you can pay those other bills and we can get you through those rough spots.’ That’s really what our goal is right now,” Pegg-Kirby said.

Any member of the Kent State community — students, faculty or staff, male or female — can use the pantry. Pegg-Kirby said this year’s total visits was 118, surpassing last year’s 106.

Because resources are limited, Pegg-Kirby said the center recommends up to one visit a month, but won’t turn away anyone in serious need — as long as the center has food. Unlike other pantries, students don’t have to provide any proof of need. However, they must show a Kent State ID. 

The Women’s Center also works in connection with Campus Kitchen, a student volunteer organization that works to prepare and distribute food to the needy in places like Kent and Akron. 

Pegg-Kirby said sometimes students would rather volunteer for Campus Kitchen, which allows them to help others and get fresh food at the program. 

Another option for students in need is Kent Social Services, which is only a short walk from campus. 

“There’s so many good-hearted people in the community willing to help so no one in Kent should have to go hungry,” said Belinda Waller, a secretary at Kent Social Services.

Waller’s desk overlooks Kent Social Services’ dining area and said only a handful of visitors looked to be college age. Students can get a hot meal daily and groceries once a month there. 

Pegg-Kirby and Marks agree the campus can do more to help students in need.

After students left campus last May, the Women’s Center located in the Williamson House opened it’s doors to the public. The move comes with a much needed expansion of the previously cramped food pantry while also offering a larger variety of food to students in need.

Pegg-Kirby said the center will also increase educational programs on community resources and food insecurity in general in the coming months.  

In 2013, Marks proposed the idea to build a community garden at a centralized location on Kent State’s campus. Currently, there is a community garden on the grounds of the old Allerton buildings. Marks would like to relocate it or build a second garden and encourage student involvement to help provide fresh produce to those in need on campus. 

“I’m always amazed with how much I learn working in this environment about people’s stories and resilience, and the reality that I’m only a paycheck or two from being in that position,” Pegg-Kirby said. “It’s not just other people — it’s all of us in many ways.

“Unfortunately I think that’s more common than we know, and people are just not talking about it.” 

Jenna Kuczkowski is a contributor, contact her at [email protected].