SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — The biggest problem facing today’s college students is mounting, crushing debt. Right? While the cost of a college education is an issue, another big challenge is facing students today: malnutrition, hunger pains and worrying about dinner. Between juggling tuition and rent, working part time or full time, scraping together enough money to eat can come last for students.
“College campus hunger is a big issue,” Shannon Coffin, child hunger programs manager at the Auburn-based Good Shepherd Food Bank, said. In Maine it’s just starting to be detected and recognized.
The organization partners with 64 Maine schools to help establish food pantries, but only two are on college campuses. One leader is Southern Maine Community College in South Portland.
In former military officer quarters, shelves of canned goods, pasta, tuna and beans stand at the ready. For more than two years this food pantry called The Captain’s Cupboard has provided relief for students who can’t afford to feed themselves or their families.
“Most food banks have financial requirements,” Tabatha Copeland, a student and director of The Captain’s Cupboard, said. “We are a lot different from that. We say ‘What do you need?’ not ‘How much do you make?’”
According to the most recent student senate survey, 31.5 percent of students at this associate degree-granting school are food insecure.
“They don’t know where their next meal will come from or don’t know what to do to get it,” Coffin explained. “They have a fear of looking at the cupboard.”
That number is nearly double the state average. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 16.2 percent of Maine households, or more than 208,000 individuals, are food insecure. In addition, 24 percent of Maine’s children are food insecure. The Pine Tree State has the highest rates in New England and ranks 12th in the nation.
To help relieve this problem, the school’s Phi Theta Kappa Honors Society created the food pantry in the fall of 2013. The all-volunteer, student-run organization opens again in mid-January with new members and students to serve. To access it, all students need is a valid school ID.
“Volunteers from all walks of life and majors band together to help each other out. When we have students coming in, we say ‘take what you need.’ No questions asked,” former director Maisarah Miskoon said.
Donations come from Good Shepherd, community members, local groups and the cafeteria.
Sodexo, the company that runs SMCC’s dining services, also pitches in. Leftover meals such as lasagna, rice dishes, quesadillas and steamed veggies are offered as frozen dinners. The Captain’s Cupboard has collected about 300 pounds of food from Sodexo that otherwise would have been thrown away.
“We have dorm students who come in for snacks, people that come in to feed their families. They are all food insecure, that’s what bonds them together,” Copeland, a 22-year-old from Biddeford, said.
To SMCC President Ron Cantor, a nourished student is a thriving student.
“The highest priority at SMCC is student success,” Cantor said. Contrary to popular belief, tuition isn’t the biggest hurdle. “Many can’t finish college or make it to classes. A companion to the complex lives they live is food insecurity.”
At nontraditional schools such as SMCC and Kaplan University in Lewiston, where a student-led food pantry has been established just as long, students are not shielded from real world problems.
“The ups and downs in the economy have had an impact,” Cantor said. “If we go back a generation or two, students went to college and finished school. In today’s world many are part time instead of full time. They have rent and food and transportation and child care. … If they hit a bump in the road, college is the last priority on their list.”
Free nutrition in the form of beef enchiladas, bagels, soup, cereal and corn helps. Since launching, Good Shepherd says these two college campuses have distributed more than 59,000 meals including over 15,000 pounds of fresh produce.
Similarly in 2009, University of Maine in Orono initiated a food pantry and clothing swap called the Black Bear Exchange. Open to students and their families, as well as faculty and staff, it dispensed 5,600 food items in the last year. Local student and staff food drives support the on-campus exchange.
Food insecurity in younger students, tallied through participation in free and reduced lunch programs and food desert maps, are easier to track. Similar statistics on college students “are harder to nail down with data,” Coffin said.
But symptoms, hunger experts say, are the same across the board.
“If you are coming into school hungry, you are not able to focus,” said Madelyn Holm, a Feeding America Child Hunger Corps member working at Good Shepherd Food Bank for a two-year stint. “You’ll have poor attention in class. If you don’t have adequate nutrition, there is the added stress of ‘Where is our food coming from? Should I be focused on class or taking shifts?’” Holm said.
Copeland, a young mother, understands this firsthand. Struggling with feeding her baby and attending class, a faculty advisor at SMCC told her about the pantry. She faced what many of her peers face: “Do I work a shift to feed our kids, or do I come to school to try and better our lives? Doing papers until midnight is really hard when you are thinking, ‘How am I going to feed my kid in the morning?’”
Good Shepherd considers The Captain’s Cupboard a model they would like to duplicate statewide. SMCC’s Brunswick campus plans to open a pantry in 2016.
“Our long-term goal is to be in every school that needs it,” Coffin said. “We want to continue to grow this, but we are a long way from reaching that.”