Mainers are hungry. Our state has the highest food insecurity in New England and one of the 10 highest in the nation, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Nonprofit Feeding America reports that more than 183,000 Mainers are struggling with hunger — and of them 50,520 are children.
Without doubt, hunger has many faces: families trying to make ends meet, school children struggling with lunch debts, our elders trying to get by on fixed incomes. Yet there is another face to food insecurity that too few of us have seen, and that is our college students.
You may be thinking: college students, really? Of course, many students are blessed to enjoy campus life and all that comes with it, but for many others, especially first-generation and non-traditional students with families, pursuing a college degree comes with great struggle and sacrifice.
While the need in Maine is not definitively known, a first-of-its-kind survey from Temple University and the Wisconsin HOPE Lab estimated that half of Americans experienced food insecurity while enrolled in college.
While hunger persists, it is important to recognize the incredible progress that has been made in building up capacity for food assistance in local communities, in part thanks to a concerted effort by Maine credit unions working together for nearly 30 years to raise money for local pantries.
The unfortunate reality, however, is that accessing traditional community assistance is not always feasible for those who live in our campus communities, often because of transportation challenges, confidentiality concerns or a lack of awareness that help is available off-campus.
This has led to an emergence of student-led, on-campus food pantries all around the country, including here in Maine. These pantries have proven to be an effective stopgap measure against student hunger. Collectively, campus food pantries within the University of Maine System self-reported serving, on average, more than 200 individuals per week.
Last year, most University of Maine System schools operated at least one campus food pantry program. As we at University Credit Union ramp up our second annual Ending Hunger on Campus in Maine Campaign to raise money for campus pantries around the state, I am pleased to be able to say that as of this year, all University of Maine System schools have established campus pantry programs.
Unlike many traditional community food pantries that may receive assistance from larger food distribution centers and government, campus food pantries depend entirely on donations and volunteered time.
Another recent survey from The Hope Lab revealed that insufficient funding continues to be a major challenge, which is why, through December 31, UCU will match every dollar donated to the Ending Hunger on Campus in Maine Campaign up to a total of $25,000.
All funds will be distributed directly to the eight campus food pantries within the University of Maine System, and you can choose to direct your gift to a specific pantry if you wish. Donations can be made at any UCU branch, through the mail, and conveniently online with a credit card at www.ucu.maine.edu/endinghungeroncampus.
Food and education should never be mutually exclusive. Please join us in our effort to ensure no student ever faces that choice.
Matthew Walsh is the president and CEO of University Credit Union, a statewide financial institution based in Orono. More information about Ending Hunger on Campus in Maine can be found at ucu.maine.edu/endinghungeroncampus.