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Middlesex Community College backs bill making campuses ‘hunger free’

As part of the Community Development Block Grant, the city of Lowell has awarded Middlesex Community College’s Lowell Food Pantry $20,000 in direct response to the food insecurity MCC students are suffering because of COVID-19.
COURTESY MCC
As part of the Community Development Block Grant, the city of Lowell has awarded Middlesex Community College’s Lowell Food Pantry $20,000 in direct response to the food insecurity MCC students are suffering because of COVID-19. COURTESY MCC
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LOWELL — A former client of The Open Door, a hunger relief agency on the North Shore, would buy a big bag of Rold Gold Pretzels on the days her schedule as a community college student didn’t allow for a food pantry visit, eating a third of the bag for each meal.

Another student would fill his backpack to the brim when he could borrow someone else’s account to access the dining hall, The Open Door advocacy director Sarah Grow told lawmakers Thursday. He’d freeze the haul to have meals for later but would worry about getting caught or that other students would catch a whiff of all the food in his bag.

“Living on a tight budget is not the same as having absolutely no food or making those pretzels last a whole day or stealing your roommate’s food or being afraid that your classmates will smell your backpack,” Grow said. “Please support the hunger-free campus initiative so that students can get back to the job of focusing on their education and not where their next meal is coming from.”

Grow was among a number of advocates to pitch the Higher Education Committee on legislation that would direct the Department of Higher Education to establish a Hunger-Free Campus Initiative and a corresponding grant program, and to dedicate an office to supporting the 29 public higher education campuses as they work to address their students’ food needs.

Rep. Andy Vargas, who filed the bill with Rep. Mindy Domb and Senate President Emerita Harriette Chandler, said 37% of public college and university students in Massachusetts are food insecure. He urged his colleagues to think of food insecurity as an “infrastructure problem.”

“It’s a systems-level problem, a logistical problem that we can solve, and this bill lays the groundwork for that,” the Haverhill Democrat said.

Under the bill, the higher education commissioner would administer grants to schools that have been designated as a “Hunger-Free Campus.”

To earn that label, schools would have to complete five initiatives each academic year — designating a staff member as Hunger-Free Campus Coordinator; establishing a Hunger-Free Campus Task Force to determine the campus’ priority activities, with at least two student members who have experienced food insecurity; conducting an annual hunger awareness activity; assessing the need to provide access to on-campus food distribution; and notifying students who receive needs-based financial aid “of their potential eligibility to receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) benefits, and other federal and state nutrition benefits available to said student or dependents.”

Student supporters of the bill described obtaining assistance in learning about and applying for food benefits as a key need.

Laura Martinez, now a graduate student at Georgetown University, said that when she moved from the Worcester Public Schools to community college, she never accounted for food costs as she struggled to navigate financial aid applications, despite receiving free school lunches as a younger student.

“How can you ask for help when you don’t know how to?” she said.

Wynne Johnson, a single parent who is studying for a master’s degree at Endicott College, said that when she was an undergraduate student at Lesley University, she and her son “relied heavily” on WIC and SNAP to put food on the table.

“The only reason that I knew about these assistance programs was because my son has a disability, and our social worker informed me about SNAP and WIC and helped me through the application process,” Johnson said. “Most college students struggling with food insecurity don’t have someone that they’re already working with who can help them access SNAP and can help them access WIC if they have a young child. It would make a huge difference if all that information was included right in their financial aid letter.”

Bunker Hill Community College President Pam Eddinger said three-quarters of her students are adults, who “do not have the safety net of parents when they’re unable to meet basic needs,” and about three-fifths are parents themselves. Fifty-four percent were food insecure in the school’s last survey, and 14% were homeless.

“College students are stereotyped as young adults of middle-class families, and if they occasionally stray from good sense and run out of money, they can tough it out with ramen, or call home to be rescued,” she said. “The reality of community college students is far from the stereotype.”

The bill is backed by the Hunger Free Campus Coalition, which formed in 2019 to address food insecurity among high-need populations at state colleges and universities in Massachusetts. Coalition members include Bristol Community College, Bunker Hill Community College, Framingham State University, Holyoke Community College, the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, Middlesex Community College, North Shore Community College, Roxbury Community College, Salem State University, Springfield College, Springfield Technical Community College, UMass Amherst, the Greater Boston Food Bank, Project Bread, Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, Massachusetts Law Reform Institute and other organizations.

Testimony on the bill came one day after lawmakers sent Gov. Charlie Baker a separate piece of legislation that aims to boost access to free school meals for K-12 students.

“It seems like the perfect timing to pivot to be able to address students grades 13 and up,” said Domb, an Amherst Democrat.