For several months last year, between classes at the University of California campus here, student Sierra Henderson stopped in at a tiny basement room to pick up free canned vegetables, pasta and cereal. “If the pantry wasn’t here, I might have had to consider taking time off school to work full-time,” said the 21-year-old food-science major.
Food pantries, where students in need can stock up on groceries and basic supplies, started cropping up on campuses in large numbers after the recession began in 2007. More than 200 U.S. colleges, mostly public institutions, now operate pantries, and more are on the way, even as the economy rebounds. Among factors behind the trend: Tuition has soared 25% at four-year public institutions since 2007, according to the College Board, and costs such as housing, books and transportation have also risen significantly in recent years.
Meanwhile, more students from low-income families are attending college. For instance, four out of every 10 undergraduates in the UC system, which includes UC Berkeley and UCLA, now hail from households with an annual income of $50,000 or less. The stigma attached to receiving free food has diminished among students as food security; a term used by the U.S. government to describe reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food is regarded on campuses increasingly as a right.
About 14.5% of U.S. households experienced some form of food insecurity in 2013, according to the Agriculture Department’s latest data. The extent of the problem at colleges is unclear, but it is a growing concern among educators since it can affect academic performance and attendance. Janet Napolitano, president of the 10-campus University of California, which enrolls 188,300 undergraduates, recently launched an initiative that includes assessing student hunger.