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Conference highlights food, housing insecurity among CSU students
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Stanislaus State is one of the 12 universities in the CSU system that does not offer a specific program for students who are food insecure. - photo by Journal file photo

College students tend to have a lot on their plates, like homework, papers and exams. But, the one thing that many are missing on their plates may be the most important, and that’s food. To try and help fix this problem as well as the issue of student homelessness, the California State University Chancellor’s Office hosted the first statewide Food and Housing Security Conference this week, convening CSU staff, faculty, administrators and students to collaborate on the effort to provide stability to those insecure students.

The food and housing security of CSU students has always been important to CSU Chancellor Timothy White, who in February 2015 awarded funding to support a study to explore the experiences of students who are food insecure or housing displaced. The study concluded that 8.7 percent of CSU students are displaced and 21 percent suffer from food insecurity, yet only 11 campuses of 23 in the CSU system currently have programs in place for food insecure students and only one campus has a program directed at displacement.

White addressed this problem during his visit to Stanislaus State in March.

“We are missing one arrow in our quiver of student support,” said White. “If their tummies are empty, how can a student sit in a class that’s academically rigorous and be worried about where they’re going to eat rather than focusing on the lesson?”

Over the next two years, the goal of the qualitative and quantitative research will be to use the findings of the initial study to confirm the scope of the problem and identify best practices with the aim of launching campus-based intervention programs. These goals began to come to light over the course of the Food and Housing Security Conference, which advanced the knowledge of participants in programming, implementation and research and provided a platform for institutions to share best practices, knowledge and innovative ideas to support displaced and food insecure students.

Keynote speakers at the conference included Clare Cady and Jessica Sutherland. Cady is the Senior Program Officer for National College Program at Single Stop, an anti-poverty nonprofit that partners with community colleges across the United States, and previously directed the Oregon State University Human Services Resource Center, a nationally-recognized program focused on servicing students experiencing poverty, hunger, homelessness and food insecurity. Sutherland founded Homeless to Higher Ed in 2013 with a mission to normalize the college experience for homeless and aged-out foster youth aged 18-24. By encouraging and empowering such students to self-identify and seek assistance without shame, the organization works to destigmatize youth homelessness.

The number of students who experience food insecurity and/or homelessness is often largely undocumented because of the negative stigma surrounding those who identify as either. According to Esther Mann of the United Samaritans Foundation in Turlock, the organization rarely sees college students at their food box days, where emergency three-day food supplies are handed out to those in need.

“It could be because they’re embarrassed,” said Mann. “But, it could be that they don’t know about it.”

Along with programs within the community, many CSUs have developed different ways to help students in need, such as food pantries, complimentary meals or food coupons.

Stanislaus State is one of the 12 universities in the CSU system that does not offer a specific program for students who are food insecure. However, the school does provide financial and housing support through Promise Scholars, a program for foster youth students. Vice President for Enrollment and Student Affairs Suzanne Espinoza explained that the lack of relief for food insecure students comes from the fact that there simply aren’t many students at Stanislaus State that need the help.

“The number of students who present themselves as homeless or food insecure at Stanislaus State is low,” said Espinoza. “We meet a student in these circumstances maybe once or twice per year. When we do, we address the situation on a case-by-case basis.  We access resources in housing, financial aid and in the local community to support these students.”

While there are no current plans to develop a program for food insecure students at Stanislaus State, Espinoza that the Warriors’ best interests are at the heart of the university.

“We will always help where we can to make sure none of our students at Stanislaus State are homeless or hungry.”