- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 11, 2016

HATTIESBURG, Miss. (AP) - Brian Street went through some hard times as an undergrad at the University of Southern Mississippi. Married with a son, there were times when he couldn’t afford to pay for his tuition, feed his family and feed himself, so he would go without meals.

“I would make an excuse - this hunger is just my body getting stronger. I’m retraining my stomach,” he remembered saying to himself. “It was a coping mechanism to tell myself I wasn’t hungry.

“I would drop a few pounds, but I would tell myself this sacrifice is worth it so my wife and son can eat.”

Now a second-year master’s student in social work, Street is helping students who find themselves in his predicament. The university’s Student Association of Social Workers in the School of Social Work opens a food pantry Wednesday for Southern Miss students and staff.

“We had a survey that we put out to students and staff, and we got a sense of the need,” said Tamara Hurst, assistant professor and association adviser. “We know from some of the national organizations this is a widespread problem.

“There are 200 on-campus food pantries across the United States.”

A report out this month from the College and University Food Bank Alliance and several national student groups finds the lack of reliable access to sufficient quantities of nutritious food is common at colleges and universities across the country. The survey of more than 3,700 students in 12 states found 48 percent reported not having enough to eat in the previous 30 days.

The study also found food insecurity occurs at two-year and four-year institutions, with 25 percent of community college students reporting very low food security compared to 20 percent at four-year schools.

The survey at Southern Miss involved about 100 students and asked whether they had to skip meals due to financial difficulties. Hurst declined to give specific results, saying social work students will conduct a more scientific survey in the spring.

“What we were finding is that there were a lot of students missing more than five meals a semester, and (we were getting) stories from staff about having to take students to Wal-Mart to buy food,” she said. “We’re talking about not having any money to buy food at all.”

The food pantry is called The Eagle’s Nest and is located in the basement of The Hub. It offers healthy choices such as canned fruit, vegetables and meat, grains and carbohydrates. Recipes are available to help students cook with the pantry items using methods available in the dorms such as a microwave and boiling water. Hygiene items and school supplies are also on hand, as are applications for SNAP (food stamps) and medical insurance through the Affordable Care Act. Only a current Southern Miss identification card is needed to access the pantry.

Hurst had been looking for a project for the social work students and had suggested some type of pop-up shop to serve community members in Hattiesburg. The students, however, wanted to do something to help their classmates. At about the same time, Thomas Burke, vice president for student affairs, was looking for a student group to start a food pantry. The students seized the opportunity.

Jennifer Martin, social work graduate student and manager of the food pantry, said food insecurity can happen to any student.

“The thing with (Southern Miss) being a four-year plus university is a student can start out with (ample) finances, but anything can happen,” she said. “You can lose a job, you can get injured, a family member can get hurt.

“You can end up that last year without having the finances to finish, so (the students) try to do what they can and skipping meals is what they’ll do.”

Hurst said there are non-traditional and first-generation college students on campus who may experience difficulty getting food, even when they’re on a meal plan.

“They may have purchased meal plans, but not full meal plans and come to the end of the semester, they are without meals,” she said.

For Street, who has gone hungry periodically since his junior year, the food pantry may come in handy.

“I may use it if I feel there is an abundant supply and my family’s use of it won’t hinder more needy students from having their necessities,” he said. “I still have trouble periodically because I have a second child now and added expenses like child care and child’s school.”

Hurst hopes any student or staff member who needs the food pantry won’t be shy about coming forward.

“Our biggest hope is not only to build campus-wide awareness and reduce stigma about food insecurity,” she said. “We want it to be clear that just because you are experiencing a time when you are missing meals, it’s OK to reach out and there is support on campus.”

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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