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Amid growing needs, Howard Community College carves space for food pantry

Amid growing needs, Howard Community College carves space for food pantry
Anya Welsh, a single mom who immigrated from Ukraine 12 years ago, says the food pantry helps her meet needs that food vouchers she receives do not. (Staff photo by Fatimah Waseem)

Between classes, two part-time jobs and her daughter's dance class, Anya Welsh stops by a tiny room tucked away in a trailer behind a building at Howard Community College to pick up cereal, tuna and other food items.

For Welsh, a single mom from Ukraine who lives paycheck to paycheck, the opening of a food pantry on the college's campus is a lifesaver. Launched on Tuesday, the food pantry provides food and personal care items to the college's growing low-income population.

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"We come to school hungry, starving and exhausted. Having this is everything," Welsh said, especially for single parents like her who cannot make it on food vouchers alone.

Food pantries are cropping up alongside corporate cafes and dining halls on college campuses across the country. On community college campuses – the home of many untraditional students with diverse needs – pantries serve a unique purpose, said Schnell Garrett, the college's acting director of student life who led pantry's launch.

Students experiencing poverty are just one flat tire away from losing their education, says Maura Dunnigan, a faculty member who is 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. They are not invisible but they are hard to see."

In the 2014 academic year, a majority of federal aid recipients at Howard Community College – 64 percent – had an annual income less than $30,000. The number of students who receive PELL grants increased by 300 between the 2014 and 2015 academic year, indicating an increasing need alongside increases in enrollment.

In Maryland, pantries are woven into the campus environment – whether a corner in a student life office or a dedicated room. The Community College of Baltimore County, Hagerstown Community College, Cecil College, Anne Arundel Community College, Carroll County Community College, Prince George's Community College and Garrett College all have food pantries, set up using varying methods.

Student Government Association President Aleksander Petrov knows first hand that reliable access to affordable, nutritious food is a growing concern for many students, resulting in spillover effects on academics and attendance.

Homeless for several months, Petrov spent seven years after graduating from Pikesville High School cleaning bowling alleys during graveyard shifts and working fast food jobs after class.

College was never an option until the Dream Act paved the way for his education. Petrov, an undocumented immigrant from Bulgaria, lived in a shelter, with his sister and mother, who left an abusive boyfriend.

The Glen Bernie resident will be the first in his family to have a college degree once he completes his last semester at HCC this year.

Looking back, Petrov hopes having staff and students working at the pantry will make students feel more comfortable.

"We don't want to make any of them feel embarrassed. It's tough when you're struggling," said Petrov, who overcame his struggle with homelessness.

With an ID card, HCC students can check out up to 10 unique items per week from the pantry. The small room – decked with shelves and cabinets full of donated items in a trailer on campus – was on the drawing table for several years. Almost half of students enrolled in the fall receive financial aid at some point during their college career.

The college has held food drives, structured around the holidays, for years. Eligible students can also use food vouchers for the college's cafe as part of a pilot food voucher program that began around two years ago.

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But with demand outstripping supplies and a growing low-income student population, college officials had trouble finding a location for the pantry until recently when a space previously used as a classroom opened up.

The small room is a big start for the college, said Cynthia Peterka, vice president of student services. "It pulls on our heartstrings," she said. "You know that students who are food insecure really aren't able to give their best in the classroom.

The college plans to open the pantry on Tuesdays from 4 to 6 p.m. and on Fridays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m, said Garrett. With the pantry in its infancy, the college is looking for donors and partner organizations, Peterka says.

Going forward, sustainability will be key, Garrett said. The college hopes to create a "proactive" culture where faculty and students donate regularly to the pantry.

"We are literally just getting up and running," said Garrett. "Eventually, a fund will be created so if people want to donate they can. We want to be able to sustain this."

The pantry had a soft launch in January for its students in Career Links, a program designed for single parents and displaced home makers. Pancake mix, granola bars, peanut butter and juice were popular items.

The pantry is easily accessible for single moms and displaced home makers.
The pantry is easily accessible for single moms and displaced home makers. (Fatimah Waseem)

"We cannot gauge whether this will be successful. We are still in our infancy," said Tara Rupp, assistant director of student wellness. "We will rely on our really strong, supportive campus and administration to support this."

An advisory board of students and staff determined best practices for the food pantry's launch after consulting with community colleges in the state.

Welsh says she will count on the food pantry as she calculates the seconds in her day to juggle her responsibilities as a mother, student and worker.

The pantry takes off one challenge off her list – food for herself and her 11-year-old daughter – as she eyes her dream to become an ultra-sound technician.

"I'm toughening up and moving forward," Welsh said.

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