- Associated Press - Monday, May 16, 2016

NORWALK, Conn. (AP) - Mikaylah Clair-Pittman, 20, pulled a wheel of brie cheese from a refrigerator in a small room tucked into a back wing at Norwalk Community College.

“No way, I can afford this,” Clair-Pittman said, adding the cheese to a yellow shopping bag. “It’s pretty pricey.”

A business management student from Stamford, Clair-Pittman gets help with tuition from her parents. But she pays for her living expenses, books and transportation with earnings from a minimum-wage part-time job. It’s tough making ends meet and in grocery store aisles, she often thinks twice before splurging on items like fresh strawberries.

So Clair-Pittman joined a growing number of college students who are turning to on-campus food pantries to fill their cupboards.

Colleges and universities from Purdue to South Florida to Penn State now offer pantries where students who might otherwise go hungry can stock up on healthy food. The College and University Food Bank Alliance, a national coalition, represents 207 schools with pantries. Four of them are in Connecticut, with Norwalk the only one in the southwestern corner of the state.

Open five days a week, the NCC pantry is being discovered by a growing number of students who can visit twice a month to stock up on groceries and daily for a grab-and-go snack of fruit or a granola bar.

The pantry is run by an AmeriCorps Vista Volunteer.

“Our theory is if we feed the students, they will stay in school, they will earn their degrees and they will do better in life,” said Shannon McAvoy, of Westport , the pantry’s coordinator.

Helping curb food insecurity among college students is a growing effort, particularly as more people than ever are pushed to seek a college education, the cost of attending rises and incomes remain flat.

“It’s definitely out there,” Sara Goldrick-Rab, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin, said, addressing the issue at a recent conference.

There is research to back up her observation, but not a lot. “Hungry to Learn,” a 2015 survey of 10 community colleges across the country, co-authored by Goldrick-Rab, found one in five students experience some level of food insecurity and 13 percent are homeless.

“We know the completion rate is linked to issues of life apart from academics,” Jason Ebbeling, executive director of the Student Success Center for the Connecticut Board of Regents for Higher Education, said.

Ebbeling said the vast majority of the system’s 17 campuses are addressing with the issue of food insecurity in some form. Some have food pantries on site, others direct students to area pantries and several are serviced by mobile food pantries.

At Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport, President Paul Broadie said his campus is in the process of exploring options to address hunger.

“Last semester I spoke with one of our honor students that did not have access to food and typically went hungry all day,” Broadie said. “This was impacting his ability to concentrate and continue to excel academically. Our faculty and staff have come across students in similar situations.”

Goldrick-Rab said one of the first obstacles to combatting college hunger is getting people to take it seriously.

“We all remember living off Ramen (noodles),” she said of college days. “Scarcity is part of being hip and cool. That’s how we lived.”

But Goldrick-Rab said food insecurity is different. Particularly for students who go from qualifying for free or reduced priced lunches in high school to nothing once they enroll in college.

“There is no safety net at college,” she said.

Courtney Ansette, NCC’s service learning coordinator said the need for food assistance among students has been there for at least the 10 years she has been at Norwalk.

Established 15 months ago, Norwalk’s pantry now has 202 members, 35 picked up just in the last month.

“The need is increasing,” Ansette said. “The awareness is increasing.”

McAvoy estimates that the pantry’s reach is about 600 people, when family members who benefit from food brought home are counted.

When the pantry started, more than half the members were adult heads of household. Now the balance has shifted to traditional students, ages 18-24, like Andrew Ribera.

Ribera, 18, of Stamford, is not only a member of the food pantry, but spends hours stocking shelves and recording member participation toward his work-study hours.

Embarrassment about using the pantry wears off quickly, he said.

“As more people started using it, it becomes, ‘Why aren’t you using it,’” Ribera said. “Without this I would be starving.”

McAvoy said her goal is to create a welcoming, opening environment.

“It is already hard to ask for help,” she said. “You shouldn’t feel shame or guilt for using something that is going to help you focus on your education to make your life better in the long-term.”

McAvoy knows of what she speaks. In 2008, following a divorce, she was forced to support two young children on her own as she went to college. Often, it was a choice: pay for gas, or pay for lunch.

In her present role, McAvoy regularly reaches out to local supermarkets and others. There are food drop-off bins around campus. All of the food at the pantry is donated, as was the refrigerator- donated by the college’s biology department -and the freezer, a Craigslist find.

Unlike traditional food pantries, the college campus pantry does not qualify for federal grants that require the service be open to all, not just students. Norwalk’s pantry also has no budget so cannot pay the membership fee to get food staples through the Connecticut Food Bank.

Still, it has an abundance of resourcefulness.

One day this week, McAvoy returned from a daily trip to Costco with fresh berries, salads, onions and a carload of avocados- so many that she planned to share some with a Darien food pantry.

An Environmental science club on campus helps compost pantry food that goes bad. Container gardens have been started in the back to grow fresh vegetables. A nutrition student uses pantry donations to create homemade trail mixes for the grab and go basket.

What Norwalk has learned is being shared with other college campuses interested in starting pantries, including Tunxis, Three Rivers and Middlesex Community Colleges.

For now, the pantry is not open to staff although it has been discussed. The focus for now, McAvoy said, is to make sure the pantry is supporting its mission to feed student success.


Information from: Connecticut Post, https://www.connpost.com

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