The remainder of this semester is all that stands between Oballa Oballa, 26, and his degree in human services from Riverland Community College, a public two-year college with three campuses in southeastern Minnesota.
But during his first couple of years, something as basic as not being able to afford food threatened to derail him. His grades were slipping, along with his concentration. And he was skipping class — not just because he didn’t have the energy to attend, but also for fear that his peers would hear his stomach grumbling.
“As a young man, at this age, it’s difficult to go to someone and say. ‘I’m hungry. I have nothing in my stomach.’” he said. “You feel embarrassed.”
Having come to America at age 20, after spending a decade in a refugee camp in Kenya, he thought he’d left food insecurity behind. But even working two jobs, as a student, his income didn’t stretch much past covering tuition and textbook fees each semester.
After withdrawing everything in his bank account to pay off his tuition balance one semester, he remembers walking away with $1.50 in change — not enough to afford the french fries and chicken nuggets he’d wanted to buy from the cafeteria later that same day. He still managed to eat, but only because another student suggested they pool their money and share a meal.
As a member of the student Senate at the Austin campus, he’d made a point of keeping his personal struggles with food insecurity private. But after realizing that he wasn’t alone in this basic struggle, he decided to spearhead opening a food pantry on campus, which was up and running six months later.
“I thought no student would use it,” he said, referring to the stigma that prevents many college students from utilizing these sorts of resources. “But every day, the line would be so far away.”
Today, more than 400 students come get food every month, he says — a demand that’s hard to keep up with every week.
On a personal note, the food pantry completely altered his academic trajectory. He’s become a regular on the president’s list, with a 4.0 term grade point average. And he plans to pursue a bachelor’s degree in social work next, followed by a master’s degree.
Using his platform as vice president of LeadMN, the student group representing two-year college students in Minnesota, Oballa has become more comfortable sharing his personal experiences struggling to overcome food insecurity.
In fact, he’s joined forces with LeadMN’s president, Frankie Becerra — a DACA recipient who’s also struggled with food insecurity throughout his postsecondary journey — to put a local face to the hunger crisis that they both say is impacting far more college students than many realize. Since taking a lead on spotlighting this issue, they’ve begun hearing more and more stories about how not just food insecurity, but homelessness as well, are negatively impacting their peers across the state. It’s something they and their LeadMN peers are aiming to tackle both at the Minnesota State system level and at the state level this legislative session.
“We’ve seen it time and time again, where students have to drop out of classes,” Becerra said. “They’re being graded on how well they can handle food insecurity and homelessness and just basic needs not being met.”
A difficult issue to quantify
On Jan. 9, the U.S. Government Accountability Office released a report confirming what many students and college affordability experts had already begun raising the alarm on: Millions of college students across the country are struggling to feed themselves while making ends meet.
Offering a more concrete number, the report flagged the fact that nearly 2 million college students who may have been eligible for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) didn’t receive benefits in 2017 — an issue that largely boils down to a lack of awareness and accessibility, based on how complicated the eligibility criteria are for many to navigate.
Since there is no federal data on food insecurity among college students, the GAO came to this conclusion by reviewing 31 studies on the topic — including four studies led by Sara Goldrick-Rab, professor of higher-education policy at Temple University.
“This is probably the highest level of awareness that we’ve gotten to,” she said, noting media coverage has certainly increased in the past few years. “But I think the majority of two- and four-year colleges and universities don’t even think this is a thing.”
She and her research team began surveying students about their experiences with food insecurity over a decade ago. In total, she’s led 10 studies on the topic, including four national studies, and the numbers have all been fairly consistent, she says.
“In many ways, it looks like these issues really undermine the amount of money we’re spending on financial aid, because you can have a financial aid recipient paying their tuition, but they can’t afford food, so they won’t succeed in college,” she said. “This certainly does happen to low-income students, those on grants. But it also happens to middle-class students, who only get loans.”
Often those loans don’t stretch far beyond covering the rising costs of tuition, textbooks and student fees.
According to her most recently published study, 36 percent of college students say they are food insecure; and 36 percent say they are housing insecure. Another 9 percent say they are homeless.
“The data confirmed a lot of the anecdotal evidence we’d heard: Our students are seeing some insecurities in terms of housing and food,” said Nate Stoltman, a spokesperson for the college.
From there, the college established a food pantry on campus that’s expanded from one to two locations.
It’s also expanded in terms of inventory.
“We have increased the amount of non-food items — more like personal care items as well, hygiene things. Those are just as much in need as the food items,” he said. “We’re in an environment down here where we have working adults who have lots of expenses … and sometimes a lot of them are making those tough decisions between what bills they can pay and what they can afford.”
This spring, Goldrick-Rab and her research team will be publishing an even larger national study that will include survey responses from students at even more four-year institutions, with greater participation from Minnesota-based colleges and universities as well.
Separately, the University of Minnesota system recently added questions about food insecurity to its College Student Health Survey, which is administered by the University’s Boynton Health Service. In 2015, more than one in seven respondents said they ran out of food and didn’t have enough money for more in the past year.
As the body of evidence of the scope and scale of food and housing insecurity continues to grow, Goldrick-Rab says she’d like to sharpen the focus of her data sets.
“You’re not a good college if you don’t have a lot of food-insecure students. It could just mean you’re inaccessible,” she said. “But your food-insecure students should have access to SNAP. Those are the kinds of [numbers] we’re going to start to emphasize more — which is: What are you doing about it?”
Expanding services, awareness
Many Minnesota colleges and universities currently offer emergency aid grants to students who are faced with living expenses that threaten to derail them – things that run the gamut from food and housing expenses to car repairs.
Some institutions, like Rochester Community and Technical College, rely on philanthropic funding to offer these sorts of grants to students in need. Others rely on a slice of state funding that the Minnesota Legislature set aside in 2017 to establish an emergency assistance program for low-income college students.
Goldrick-Rab applauds this state investment. It’s one that Oballa and Becerra say LeadMN students will be looking to expand upon, as they appeal to state lawmakers this legislative session and to Minnesota State system leaders.
Only 10 colleges and universities currently receive a portion of this state funding. They’d like to see that expanded to every single campus, so no qualifying student is denied access.
Additionally, they’d like to see a food delivery system established on every campus. While the campus food pantries have grown in popularity in recent years, they say this vital resource is still very much dependent upon students and faculty feeling compelled enough to take the lead.
“We’d like it to be a systemwide effort,” Becerra said. “We’ve heard from students that they’ve chosen campuses based on the services that they have. We’d like consistency, so that’s not the main reason they choose a campus — that it’s really fitting what they want.”
Finally, even when the necessary resources are put in place, he says, many students would still benefit from having a point person on campus to help connect them with the federal, state and local resources that they qualify for.
All of these asks seek to make college more affordable, and accessible — not just to traditionally underserved postsecondary students, but also to middle-class students who are also feeling the pinch of rising costs of tuition and rent.
During his campaign for governor, Gov. Tim Walz pledged to provide two years of tuition-free education at Minnesota state institutions for students whose families make less than $125,000 a year. Asked about this promise at a recent press event, Walz didn’t present any specifics on how this could be implemented. He did, however, reiterate his commitment to making it happen.
“Affordability across the spectrum of possibilities, from technical education to a four -year degree, is still a commitment — just making sure the two years are not a burden,” he said, noting his generation didn’t have to worry about not being able to afford a postsecondary degree. “The state, at that time, paid for two-thirds of the cost and the individual spent one third – and half of that was in Pell grants. That has been turned on its head. And we are closing off the ladder to the middle class.”