When he transferred to Columbia University his sophomore year, Martin Deely opted not to take a full course load because he needed some of his tuition money for groceries. Even then he had to go to the campus food pantry to get enough to eat.
The Columbia University Food Bank, at the southern end of Columbia’s campus in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights, isn’t much bigger than a large utility room. But it plays a vital role at the school, allowing cash-strapped students to select a certain number of items from each food group based on the size of their household.
“It’s a couple hundred dollars, but it means that that cash can go directly to the registrar, and I can occasionally have a couple friends over for pasta and a movie,” Mr. Deely said.
He is one of many students at universities across the country, including elite schools like Columbia, struggling to have enough to eat. They are increasingly turning toward campus food pantries.
A study by the University of Wisconsin-Madison estimates that as many as one-third of American undergraduates experience food insecurity while pursuing college degrees. Many colleges have attempted to tackle student hunger by opening food pantries for students. Columbia University Food Bank is a member of the University Food Bank Alliance, which grew from 15 campus food banks when the organization began in 2012 to nearly 700 this year.
Two undergraduate students at Columbia started the pantry as a project in May 2016. Initially, it was only advertised on a Facebook page to students in the School of General Studies at Columbia, an undergraduate college for nontraditional and returning students, many of whom are older or have worked before returning to school. But soon students from every corner of the campus were sending inquiries on how to get food from the co-founders, Michael Higgins and Ramond Curtis.
In the ﬁrst week, more and more people showed up, including students who weren’t in the School of General Studies.
“We didn’t know what we were onto, but we knew we were onto something,” Mr. Higgins said. Within two weeks, the pantry had given away 30 to 35 disbursements.
Over the next three years, the two-person team grew into a group of 150 student volunteers. They have disbursed 1,600 bundles of food to students from 20 of the university’s 21 diﬀerent schools. Now, there are plans for a second satellite location.
The School of General Studies plans to donate $50,000 over the next ﬁve years, and the university’s dining services has pledged an annual donation of $5,000.
“It’s simply unacceptable to have students having these types of issues,” said Dean of the School of General Studies Lisa Rosen-Metsch. “The food pantry is not the answer. But right now, to make sure there is stability in this initiative while also trying to address larger issues, we are very honored to support this.”
One Columbia doctoral student and single mother in her late 30s ﬁrst visited the food pantry last August, when the high-school students she had been tutoring no longer needed her guidance for the SAT. As a Ph.D. student, she receives an annual stipend of around $38,000 and takes out an equivalent amount in federal loans. She also tutors on the side when possible and receives an additional $2,000 a year from Columbia for child-care expenses. But this alone isn’t enough to pay her bills, her rent, her son’s preschool tuition, and the monthly debt payments for legal fees from her recent divorce.
“I’m food insecure and I’m housing insecure, but I don’t qualify for actual services in NYC because I make ‘too much money,’ ” she said. She has applied for aﬀordable housing through the city but is on a waiting list, she also said.
Once every couple of weeks, she waits in line at the food pantry to pick up pasta, rice, and beans—staples for her and her 5-year-old son. Once a week, she gets a box of in-season fruits and vegetables from the West Harlem Community Supported Agriculture drop-oﬀ site blocks from her apartment. The CSA and the food bank shrink her weekly grocery list to just cheese and yogurt.
Mr. Deely, a 47-year-old who was previously a full-time video editor for a ﬁlm company, now works part time as a research assistant in the history department while attending classes at Columbia. He receives about $13,000 a semester in ﬁnancial aid, $7,000 a year through the work-study program and a couple scholarships, which vary by semester. That leaves between
$5,000 and $10,000 per semester in tuition fees that he has to pay. The regular cost of tuition is about $59,000.
He took only two classes his ﬁrst semester—half the regular course load—and sold all of his out-of-season clothes on eBay for extra cash. Now a senior with a regular course load, he credits the campus food bank with giving him greater access to the school’s social and academic life.
“It’s a pervasive, all-encompassing issue,” he said. “If you have it, it tends to be present 24/7. Everything takes a back seat until you get your food ﬁgured out.”