Comitta, Lawmakers Discuss Hunger-Free Campuses Act at West Chester University

ComittaImage via Pennsylvania Senate Democrats

WEST CHESTER, PA — In recognition of Hunger Action Month, state Senator Carolyn Comitta recently brought together fellow lawmakers, university officials, student advocates, and representatives from anti-hunger organizations for a roundtable discussion on food and basic needs insecurity on college campuses.

The discussion, hosted by West Chester University, focused on current legislation and ongoing efforts to address what has become a growing challenge for undergraduate and graduate students at institutions across the Commonwealth and the nation.

According to a 2019 survey conducted by the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, around one in three students attending four-year colleges in Philadelphia struggled to meet their basic needs. In addition, a 2020 Chegg survey found that nearly a third of student respondents reported experiencing food insecurity – lacking consistent access to nutritious, affordable food – since the beginning of the pandemic. And while the problem has only been exacerbated by the evolving pandemic, additional studies show that food insecurity among college students is associated with poorer academic performance and mental and physical health.

That’s why Comitta organized the discussion at WCU to heard directly from student leaders and officials who were experiencing and working to combat food and basic needs insecurity on campus.

“This is an issue that impacts students and it’s crucial that we hear directly from them about how it impacts their families, their academic careers, their lives, and their futures,” she said. “I want to thank WCU and its staff for their ongoing efforts to address student food and basic needs insecurity on campus. And we appreciate groups like Swipe Out Hunger, Challah for Hunger, Fuel Higher Ed PA, and the growing coalition of dozens of food banks, food pantries, student groups, religious institutions, and community organizations across Pennsylvania supporting the Hunger-Free Campuses Act.”

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While students discussed the challenges they face in accessing nutritional food and other needs, legislators like state Rep. Jennifer O’Mara and state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta reflected on their own experiences with food insecurity as college students.

“Hunger on college campuses is personal to me. I experienced first-hand the reality that tuition does not account for all the expenses that students are met with in seeking higher education. We can solve this problem, and it is critical that Pennsylvania leads on this issue,” Kenyatta said.

Comitta introduced the Hunger-Free College Campuses Act, Senate Bill 719, in the Pennsylvania Senate. The bill, which was also introduced in the House as House Bill 1363 by O’Mara and Kenyatta, calls for providing up to $1 million in grants to higher education institutions to help them tackle food insecurity. It would also direct further study on the issue of food insecurity at Pennsylvania colleges and universities, in order to inform the development of additional long-term solutions.

“Pennsylvania is one of the nation’s leading agricultural producers – and yet we have folks in our communities going hungry,” said state Senator John Kane, a co-sponsor of the bill. “I know what it’s like to survive on hot dogs and ramen, to worry about where your next meal is going to come from. We have college students across the Commonwealth going through that every day, while also trying to learn. That’s not okay with me. I’m proud of the work my colleagues and I are doing to make sure all of our campuses are hunger-free.”

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To its credit, WCU has made available a Resource Pantry aimed at supporting student success by minimizing food and basic needs insecurity and preparing students for life after graduation. The Resource Pantry offers non-perishable food, fresh produce from campus gardens, personal care items, school supplies, and winter and career clothing. It is open to all undergraduate and graduate students regardless of need level.

Dr. Ashlie Delshad, a Professor of Political Science at WCU and a founder of the WCU Campus Community Garden, said food insecurity is prevalent on college campuses across the Commonwealth and across the country, and we need policies at the state and federal levels to systematically address it.

“As a college student, I experienced food insecurity firsthand. As a college professor at WCU for the past decade, I have also seen the barriers food insecurity creates for our students,” she said. “I have had the immense pleasure of working with university staff and students to help create programs and resources to alleviate some of these barriers, and there is more we can do as an institution. But the reality is one-quarter to one-third of WCU students experience food insecurity, and this problem is not unique to WCU.”

Following the roundtable discussion, Comitta and others visited and toured the community garden and Resource Pantry, which serves about 200 students a week.

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Students also discussed the reality that tuition does not account for all the expenses they are met with in seeking higher education – an aspect that some tend to overlook until they face it firsthand.

In addition, a growing number of nontraditional college students – those who are financially independent, over the age of 25, parents, or full-time workers – are more likely to face financial challenges and food insecurity. The same is true for international students who, despite sometimes being perceived as financially better off than their domestic peers, face obstacles in accessing employment and tend to lack support systems.

Comitta noted that student hunger is not a partisan issue and deserves to be met with innovative and collaborative solutions, like the Hunger-Free Campuses Act.

Kenyatta called the bill “a bold step in the right direction.”

“And with $7.5 billion tucked away, there’s no excuse that we can’t afford to get it done,” he emphasized. “The only thing we can’t afford is to not act.”

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