Addressing Food Insecurity on College Campuses

by Joanie Pioli

This Spring, Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon partnered with Portland Community College (PCC) to create a SNAP application assistance and outreach program at PCC’s Southeast and Sylvania campuses. SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program formerly known as Food Stamps, is a federal nutrition program that connects Americans experiencing food insecurity to monthly food assistance.

Faculty, staff and students at colleges all across the country have noticed an upward trend in the number of students who face food insecurity. A 2018 study by the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, highlighted that 42% of community college students experience food insecurity in the U.S. on a daily basis.

Whether it’s skipping meals, dropping classes or not buying textbooks, the impacts of food insecurity on students’ well-being are severe. This observation was no less evident at Portland Community College. College professor Abbie Berman began to notice students frequently expressing hardships with finances, “Students approach us in times of stress, such as during finals week or Christmas time… Some face eviction, child care, or health issues – a lot of life happens to our students over the 2 years we are with them and it was during these discussions that it emerged that they were lacking food.” Berman and the other members of her department created a small food pantry in her department on campus called, The Skeleton’s Closet in order to meet their student’s needs.

Why are so many students food insecure?

College is often depicted as a time for students to be relieved of the stresses that come along with adulthood. A time for students to focus on their school, grades and building tight networks with new friends. The reality frequently looks different. More and more students are trying to balance going to school, working and paying an accumulation of monthly costs such as housing, utilities, childcare and food. All of which are essential. But when faced with the decision to either cut costs from their food budget or drop out of school, suddenly the step from food security to insecurity is an abrupt one.

Although SNAP has proven to be an effective program for scuffing out hunger, there are a multitude of barriers the student population in particular face when attempting to connect to this resource. Under current SNAP policy, students in higher education are required to not only meet the income guidelines to be determined eligible for the program, but also an additional criteria, one of which requires students to work 20 hours a week. For a student that is half time or more, that is a big ask on top of school work and balancing the daily stresses of one’s finances. Berman noted, “It’s difficult to make ends meet when in school, especially since working a full-time job is nearly impossible. With rent, transportation costs, childcare etc, I imagine that grocery bills are actually one of the first and easiest things to cut back on.”

How can we address this issue?

Our partnership with PCC spurred out of a need  to find solutions to student hunger within our community. Implementing programs, such as the SNAP application assistance program at PCC, is just one solution to the issue of student food insecurity. SNAP allows participants to supplement their food budget, and in doing so it permits households to allocate a greater margin of their income toward other fundamental needs. However, SNAP alone does not have the capability to address the compounding issues that are often at the root cause of food insecurity, such as, the rising costs of housing, tuition, or childcare. Still, SNAP has proven to be the most effective food assistance program in the U.S., allocating nearly 70 billion federal dollars in 2017 to Americans struggling to keep food on the table, according to Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Which is why SNAP application assistance programs are  an effective method for addressing student hunger.

This March, we collaboratively drew up a model that would allow as many students as possible to access information and assistance for obtaining SNAP. Alongside PCC’s established food pantry, learning garden, and resource centers that work diligently to connect students to imperative needs, there was compatible infrastructure already in place to import additional tools and allow more students to obtain self sufficiency by utilizing programs like SNAP throughout their education. PHFO and Oregon Department of Human Services (DHS) trained more than 50 student advocates at seven different resource centers across these two campuses on how to effectively message SNAP to students and assist them in filling out applications. PCC student advocates connect with students on campus through resource centers and providing students with a trusted on-campus source for assistance rather than an outside organization. Applications are then submitted to DHS and each student is provided with support throughout the entirety of application process.  AJ, a student advocate at the ASPCC who works in the campus food pantry noted, “It’s really crucial and important that we have the application assistance program here on campus because students might feel intimidated to go into a DHS office for the first time and fill out the application primarily, versus if their in a recognizable setting with people that they already know, it makes it a lot easier for the student.”


Thus far, we’ve seen a great deal of success with the first year of implementing this program. By identifying some the major barriers for students in obtaining SNAP, we’ve been able to adapt our outreach through more effective messaging that addresses the core of common barriers. Whether that barrier is stigma, mobility, lack of knowledge or common misconceptions, offering clear and easily accessible information about SNAP targeted specifically for the student population has opened up space for students to explore their options for obtaining food security.

One of the most exciting components of this program is the partnership with Portland Community College. The support and engagement we have received from the PCC community has been beyond what we imagined. We hope to establish long lasting relationships with PCC and continue to create new avenues to connect students to SNAP in the years to come. We are very grateful for the help and support of our partners at Portland Community College and the Oregon Department of Human Services and all of their hard work in helping us address the issue of student food insecurity head on.

It is not an easy task to pull together the resources necessary to provide an SNAP application assistance program, but we’ve already seen variations of this program model taking place at Portland State University, as well as expressed interest to expand to PCC’s Rock Creek and Cascade campuses. What is certain is there is a need to have this resource offered to students and we hope to support future efforts in adapting our model to other community colleges and universities in Oregon.

If you have and questions about our SNAP application assistance program or its model, please contact Joanie Pioli at [email protected].

This material was funded by USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). USDA is an equal opportunity provider and employer.