By RICH REZLER
Washtenaw Community College was one of 14 institutions across the nation visited by the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) as it compiled the first-ever federal report on hunger at American colleges and universities.
The report, which was released on January 9, concluded that federal systems should do more to decrease food insecurities on campuses.
Representatives of the GAO, a non-partisan organization that provides Congress with information, visited WCC in March 2018 to gather information from college officials and students.
They met with members of WCC’s Student Services department, toured the college’s student food pantry and discussed the support WCC students receive via the WCC Foundation’s Student Emergency Fund and other services.
The GAO also visited Eastern Michigan University, University of Michigan-Dearborn and Mott Community College in Michigan; along with two- and four-year colleges in California, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Ohio and Texas.
The report’s primary recommendation was that the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service division should better clarify rules and share more information regarding student eligibility in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The report estimates that less than half of the 3.3 million students who were potentially eligible actually participate in the federal food assistance program.
Another one-quarter of low-income students did not meet any of the student exemptions allowed under SNAP, the report states.
Furthermore, the report indicates that Food and Nutrition Service doesn’t share student eligibility requirements and other important information with college officials to help the institutions better help students.
It also points out that federal student aid does not cover the full cost of attending college. Pell Grants cover 37 percent of costs at community colleges and 19 percent at four-year institutions.
The GAO report was unable to estimate the number of college students nationwide who fall into the “food insecure” category.
It did examine 31 different studies conducted in the United States since 2007 and noted that 22 of them estimate that more than 30 percent of students are food insecure.
The number is higher at two-year colleges than four-year colleges, the report concludes.
HELP AT WCC
None of those numbers are a surprise to Liz Orbits, the Dean of Student Services at WCC.
Orbits and the employees of the WCC Student Resource Center (SRC) have long been focused on helping students with food insecurity reach the “finish line” of their educational goals.
It starts by offering one-on-one assistance for any student facing barriers to academic success or in crisis for basic needs. The SRC has several grants available to help pay for tuition, textbooks, childcare and bus tokens.
The SRC also operates the college’s on-campus food pantry, which relies on donations of cash and goods from the WCC community and outside organizations to keep its shelves well-stocked.
“(The food pantry) is another way to help students complete their program of study and overcome any temporary challenges they’re having,” said Orbits. “Resources like the food pantry can mean all the difference in helping students reach their academic goal. Whatever we can do to help that’s reasonable and within our scope of practice, we’re more than happy to do it.”
Currently enrolled WCC students can receive up to two bags of food and personal hygiene items twice each semester. An SRC case manager also shares information about other active food banks and hot meal availability in the community.
Carol Tinkle, an administative assistant in the WCC Counseling and Career Planning department, oversees daily operation of the food pantry. She called food insecurity “a real issue at WCC.” During the 2017-18 school year, the food pantry served 155 students in need; a near 30-percent increase from 2016-17.
The WCC Foundation is another on-campus group working hard to help students overcome financial hurdles and remain in school.
Along with offering need-based scholarships, the WCC Foundation unveiled its Student Emergency Fund in 2017 to give some students limited, but critical, financial assistance.
The one-time grants of up to $500 can be used to pay for things like food, car repairs, utility payments, etc.
“The concept is simple: help avoid a financial crisis and keep a student in college,” said Associate Vice President of College Advancement Phil Snyder.
The Student Emergency Fund is supported by gifts, donations and grants.