In my family, Thanksgiving is a holiday of lists: dishes to cook, decorations to buy, relatives to pick up from the airport. It’s also a holiday of gratitude. When we finally sit down to eat, my mother crosses off the last item on her list. She gives a short speech, like her father did, of gratitude for our food, our family, and the time we spend together.
I am so thankful that I was able to travel home to be with family for Thanksgiving when I was in college. Not all college students are able to do so.
With rising tuition, insufficient financial aid, and living costs that have more than doubled since the 1980s, students are more cash-strapped than ever. These students often find themselves hungry, homeless, and alone on campus as dining halls and dorms close for the holiday.
But Thanksgiving break isn’t the only time students experience food insecurity. More than 56,000 college students identify as homeless on their financial aid applications and, according to a March 2017 report by the Wisconsin Hope Lab and the Association of Community College Trustees, over two-thirds of community college students and as many as one in five students at four-year universities struggle to cover their most basic need: For food.
Many students are forced to choose between buying books and buying food, often having to take on multiple jobs to support themselves and their families.
In the Campus Hunger Project, a program launched by Challah for Hunger, we train students to help address food insecurity on their campuses through research, advocacy, and outreach. In its first year, the project found the biggest obstacles to addressing food insecurity were a lack of recognition of the problem and knowledge constraints, and it grouped schools into three categories in how they are tackling the issue: high-, medium-, or low-support institutions.
While several universities and colleges have recognized food insecurity as a growing problem, few, if any, institutions have sought to understand the scope of this issue – or to recommend long-term solutions.
Here in Philadelphia, Temple University student Gadi Zimmerman will be among those trying to find a solution to the growing problem. Over the next year, the Campus Hunger Project will mobilize a cohort of nine student volunteers – including Zimmerman – who will learn from experts and develop and implement campus-specific test programs to help feed food-insecure students
As you prepare for your Thanksgiving meal and put together your “to do” lists, I hope you’ll consider adding the following:
- Spread awareness about hungry students in need. This is a hidden form of hunger, so we need to start by talking about this stigmatizing issue with our friends and family.
- Advocate for change at a local and national level. Contact your elected officials and local campus administrators to ask them to make campus hunger a priority. We must also urge lawmakers to support transparency in the financial aid system and to modernize support services like SNAP and TANF so they meet the needs of 21st-century students.
- Give generously. While we work toward long-term solutions, we must also feed students in need right now. Give what you can, in both food and dollars, to support nonprofits that are making a difference in this field today.
This way, when we sit down to our Thanksgiving tables and cross off the last items on our list, we will enjoy our meals that much more, knowing that we’re working together to reduce the number of hungry Americans.
Talia Berday Sacks is director of campus programs for the Philadelphia-based nonprofit Challah for Hunger.