It’s hard to study when you’re hungry – Part 2

In part one, we looked at the large-scale issue of campus hunger in the Unites States and some ways in which student activists across the country have spurred change and gathered support to fight this epidemic.

From the “Swipe Out Hunger” program to the hundreds of campus food pantries which have popped up just in the last few years- change starts with the masses. We as students, are the masses.

So, what can we do here at Maryville College to fight the effects of this issue? In the part one interview with Dr. Andrew Irvine, he spoke of the Wisconsin Hope Lab and how Maryville College could benefit from throwing our hats in the ring.

If we are a college that wishes to “do good on the largest possible scale”, joining a group which means to end campus hunger would seem to be a given.

To gauge what types of hurdles we may be facing in this attempt, I wanted to reach out to a college who has already began this fight. Surprisingly, I didn’t have to go to a big college like the University of Tennessee or even to a school the size of East Tennessee State to do that.

A quick drive down the road to Pellissippi State Community College and you can find a campus garden and food pantry along with a small staff of motivated and truly amazing people with one goal- making sure every student is fed and has the opportunity to succeed no matter their financial situation.

Drema Dowers, the Director of PSCC Service Learning, is a driving force behind the workings of these programs at Pellissippi State and deserves a huge amount of credit for what she does on a daily basis.

I spoke with her recently in an attempt to understand how we at Maryville College might be able to do for our students, what they do for theirs and at the very least make an attempt to address the issue.

In the 2017-2018 year, fall semester to fall semester, the Pellissippi State food pantry and garden had 130 participants,121 students, and helped feed 400 people when one takes into account the family members of the participants. My first question for Ms. Bowers was what motivated her to take on this massive task.

“Our college became aware of some of the non-academic issues our students were dealing with,” responded Bowers. “This came through anecdotal information, information students shared and an internal review of our financial aid records. Once the college realized that 61% of our students would qualify for free or reduced lunch if it were available at a college level, we knew we needed to act. In the Fall of 2015, our college President, Dr. Anthony Wise, challenged, Dr. Annie Gray, previous Service-Learning Program Coordinator with the task of creating a food pantry. Through her dedication and the support of an AmeriCorps VISTA member the Pantry Launched in May 2016 as a pilot. This fall, we started our 3 year and within the first month, have 39 participants which accounts for 100 family members.”

I was shocked that in the first month of the 3rd year, they will already be feeding 100 people. That means they are well on their way to helping even more people this year than they did last year. I then asked what Ms. Bowers had learned since becoming involved with the PSCC programs.

“That the problem is greater than even we knew at the time,” said Bowers. “Nationwide research indicates that two out of three community college students struggle with hunger. I also know that the resource is still under utilized….some students have shared that there are ‘others who are worse off’ so they don’t want to take from them and others express a sense of embarrassment. One professor has signed up this semester to show a student how it works and take some of the stigma away.”

The stigma of participating in a program like this can be devastating to a student’s confidence, so it’s great that PSCC is attempting to address this issue as well. I asked Ms. Bowers,in her opinion, if the program at PSCC had a large budget and was surprised by her answer to say the least.

“Although the Service-Learning & Civic Engagement Department manage the Pantry; our funding comes for the Pellissippi State Foundation,”stated Bowers. “We do not have a set budget. We are totally reliant on donations and grants. I worry every time I place an order if we are going to be ok; but we have written a few grants, do internal food drives and have some faculty/staff who provide monthly on-going donations to us.”

This means that with the right motivation and support- we too could institute a program to combat campus hunger. The Wisconsin Hope Lab is at the head of the pack in fighting and researching this epidemic. I wanted to learn more about Ms. Bower’s experience with them so I asked if they were a part of the study and if so, how has it helped their program.

“In the fall of 2017, two of the AmeriCorps VISTAS asked if they could attend the #RealCollege Conference sponsored by the Wisconsin Hope Lab,” said Bowers. ”At that time, I knew only a little about the Wisconsin Hope Lab but realized the importance for their work in food and housing insecurity among college students.

When they returned, they were so motivated by the work that they requested Pellissippi State become part of the survey. We were too late for 2017; but were invited to become part of the 2018 survey. We had to agree to provide incentives for students (100 students will be selected randomly to receive $100 gift cards to either our bookstore or our cafeteria) and our Institutional Research Board had to be in agreement. It was a struggle to get everything worked out but it was work it; but well worth it. At this point, we are the only community college in the southeast that is part of this work. For the past 4 weeks, our students have received weekly e-mails to participate in the survey. In the spring we will begin to receive the results. For us a college, it’s important for us to be at the forefront of this work. I attended the #RealCollege Conference a couple of weeks ago and can only say that it was “life changing”. We heard from graduates of ivy league institutes, some who spoke about their personal issues with hunger and homelessness that their classmates never knew.”

Lastly, I wanted to know, after seeing the good that Drema and her staff have done for the students and families of PSCC, would she recommend that other institutions pick up the torch and get in the race?

“Yes, Yes, Yes The work is time consuming for sure but the benefits are so worth it,” responded Bowers. “My only suggestion is to research your options. What I learned from the conference is that supporting food and housing insecurity looks differently for each institution. Some of us have pantries on our campus, some of us partner with specific pantries in our communities (we conduct food drives for them, recruit volunteers and in-turn our students access their resources); some work with their food vendors…. there was one school there who did work out an agreement with Aramark! Take time to figure out what might work best for you. This conference is a MUST. It will be in Houston next year Sept. 28 and 29th.”

This is only one example of an institution going above and beyond for their students. I know for a fact that food insecurity is an issue on the MC campus because just last semester, I met a student who had to drop out because they simply couldn’t afford to attend school and stay nourished.

Our motto is “Do good on the largest possible scale.” I can’t help but wonder how many meals could have been purchased with the money spent on the large banners that dawn those legendary words spoken by Isaac Anderson. If we can afford new gyms and banners, we can afford to make sure students are fed.

If a school the size of PSCC can utilize donations and grants to feed 400 people- we should be able to feed the few hungry students that walk across the MC campus every day.

I have spent my entire 10 years as an adult fighting to make change in this world both overseas while serving in the military and through activism once I got back.

I implore our outstanding institution, both students and faculty, to pick up the torch and truly “do good on the largest possible scale” because right now, we are simply falling short.

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