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As college student poverty grows, so do food pantries

Colleges in Maryland are starting food banks for hungry students.

Anya Welsh is today's starving college student.

The 31-year-old single mother from Ukraine lives paycheck-to-paycheck while juggling classes at Howard Community College to become an ultrasound technician, two part-time jobs and her daughter's dance class. Her parents still live in her native country and can't afford to help her.

So when her campus became the latest to open a food pantry last week, Welsh was there to pick up cereal, tuna fish and other items. "We come to school hungry, starving and exhausted. Having this is everything," she said.

Nationwide, more than 280 colleges and universities now have food pantries.

College administrators around the country say a growing number of students are struggling to pay for food and other essentials as tuition rates have risen, financial aid has fallen, and eligibility rules for college loans have tightened.

At the same time, wages have stagnated and families hard-hit by the Great Recession continue to struggle financially. Many are unable to help their children pay for college.

In Maryland, community colleges in Anne Arundel, Carroll and Baltimore counties as well as the University of Maryland, College Park offer donated food for free to students at dedicated food pantries. The University of Baltimore plans to open a food pantry this fall, and Towson University and Baltimore City Community College are considering opening pantries.

The trend continues one seen in grade schools and high schools, which are increasingly offering food pantries or take-home meals to students.

Though older generations may recall getting by on ramen noodles in college, anti-hunger advocates say today's problem goes beyond the stereotypical image of poor college students happily surviving on cheap junk food.

"There are clearly preconceived notions. People say, 'When I was in college I did this,'" said Michael J. Wilson, the director of Maryland Hunger Solutions. "It's not the same as it was 30 or 40 years ago."

College student poverty reflects the lingering impact of the recession and the fact that more low-income students are attending college, said Barmak Nassirian, director of federal relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. Also, more students are working full time, and many of them are parents.

"People come to us with complicated lives," he said.

Food pantries on campus are "a sign of the times, they're a sign of wage stagnation in this country and potentially unfair distribution of income," Nassirian said.

At Howard Community College, where almost half of those who enrolled in the fall will receive financial aid at some point in their college career, students can get up to 10 items per week from the food pantry. The small room with shelves and cabinets full of donated items had been on the drawing board for several years.

Some students may be just one flat tire away from losing their education, said Maura Dunnigan, a faculty member and part of an advisory group that helped organize the pantry.

"Where do they come up with the money? Say a tire blows out or they need to pay their car registration. There are students who are in school trying to make a stable living," said Dunnigan, who has been on the college's faculty for 12 years. "The needs get bigger every year."

By one measure, the number of struggling college students has increased in Maryland. More than one-quarter of freshmen received Pell Grants, a form of financial aid for low-income students, in 2012, the latest year for which data is available. That's up from one-fifth of freshmen in 2004.

College students are ineligible for the state food assistance program, formerly known as food stamps, unless they work at least 20 hours a week, have a child under 6 or meet certain other requirements. The state doesn't separate data on the number of college students getting food assistance.

The U.S. Census found that 71 percent of college undergraduates were working in 2011, and that one in five were working at least 35 hours a week year-round. The number of college students with children grew by 50 percent between 1995 and 2011, according to a 2014 study from the Institute for Women's Policy Research.

Elizabeth Paige, a graduate student at the University of Baltimore who spearheaded the effort to bring a food bank to campus, said that as an undergraduate she saw some of her classmates struggle to pay for food.

"It's not a superficial thing, where people are upset that they can't eat out every night, or ramen's not good enough for them," said Paige, 26. "If you go to class hungry, you have a hard time paying attention."

Paige said she had several friends who were working multiple jobs and eating pasta every day. Another friend received food stamps. The University of Baltimore does not have dorms or a traditional cafeteria, which compounds the problem, she said.

"There are a lot of community-based food pantries and soup kitchens, but when you're working three jobs, have a family, that can be one extra stop that you can't afford to make at the end of the day," Paige said.

The university's food pantry will open in October, likely in the student center, and will be available to faculty and staff.

Baltimore City Community College officials visited other community colleges in December to learn how their food banks are operated, spokesman William J. Fleming said. There is no firm date to open one at the city campus.

Carroll Community College has been running its food pantry since 2011, while Anne Arundel Community College has had one since 2010. College Park opened its food bank in October 2014 after the campus dietitian heard from students who couldn't afford food, said Allison Lilly, who runs the pantry. In its first year, the pantry served 160 people, she said.

One-half to three-quarters of the people who come in are faculty or staff, while most of the students who come in are juniors, seniors and graduate students, Lilly said. More than half only visit once or twice.

"We see a lot of people who come into the pantry who are nervous and say things like 'I'm not sure if I'm supposed to be here,'" Lilly said. "We're trying to reduce the barriers for people who need that support to come in and get it."

The pantry distributes mostly nonperishable items. Vegetables grown on the campus farm are distributed in season. The college holds food drives and receives donations from local companies and restaurants such as Nando's Peri-Peri.

Lilly said it is challenging to get a sense of the scope of the problem among college students.

"There's much more robust data on students when they're in [grade] school with free and reduced lunch," she said, referring to the program for low-income children. "There's no reason to believe that those people disappear or their financial problems are solved when they go to college."

Farhan Ahmed, a 20-year-old sophomore at College Park, got out of class recently and headed to the food pantry in the basement of the health center. He scanned the shelves and filled his reusable green grocery bag with vegetable and lentil soups, peanut butter and a can of sliced peaches.

The food will help Ahmed and his fiancee stretch out their meals for the week. They get by on a patchwork of financial aid and grants, and income from part-time jobs. Ahmed said he started relying on the food bank last semester.

"When you come here, you're realizing the truth of the situation," said Ahmed, who studies computer science. "Right now it's hard because I don't have my parents, so I don't have anybody to support me. We don't have anyone to back us up, but we're trying."

Ahmed said his parents live in Bangladesh and can't afford to support him. He said he started collecting food and bottled water handed out for free at campus events to donate to the food bank so he can help others in need.

"It's starting a habit of give and take," Ahmed said. "If I don't donate, then others will suffer, too."

Baltimore Sun Media Group reporter Fatimah Waseem contributed to this article.

cwells@baltsun.com

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