UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Both nationally and at Penn State, food and housing insecurity is an increasing challenge for many college students. In February 2020, President Eric J. Barron formed the University Task Force on Food and Housing Security comprised of students, faculty and staff to assess this issue across the Commonwealth on Penn State campuses.
Spearheaded by Students Affairs and Finance and Business, the task force worked to collect and analyze data, review and improve current programming, consider new initiatives and explore philanthropic opportunities for support to increase well-being in these areas.
“At Penn State, we have a duty to our students to provide them with an environment within which they can thrive and be successful,” said Barron. “When you are hungry or lack adequate housing, being successful in your classes is nearly impossible. Our University is one that is based on community and it is our obligation as administrators, faculty and staff to address food and housing insecurity.”
The group, co-chaired by Andrea Dowhower, associate vice president for Student Affairs, and John Papazoglou, associate vice president for Auxiliary and Business Services, examined findings from the 2019 Project Cahir Survey, looking at student experiences with access to basic needs like food and housing; the 2019 CORE survey, which not only examined food insecurity but included a focus on substance use behaviors, mental health, feelings of belonging, and perceived experiences of discrimination; and a 2019 Homelessness Report, an unofficial look at homelessness among students.
National data suggest that up to 42% of four-year college students experience some level of food insecurity and 48% experience some level of housing insecurity. In addition, while 2% self-identify as homeless, up to 14% of students nationwide fit the homelessness criteria.
At Penn State, efforts to assess levels of food and housing insecurity suggest that up to 35% of students across the Commonwealth experience some level of food insecurity; however, efforts to assess housing insecurity has been more challenging to collect and verified levels of homelessness are limited to several dozen individuals.
“While these challenges may be more pronounced at various other schools across the country, the Penn State community knows that significant work must be done to address food and housing insecurity among our own students," said Damon Sims, vice president for Student Affairs. "Our efforts and those of various student groups that focus on these concerns have been notable at many campuses, but we must do more to integrate, coordinate and standardize our response to these problems no matter where they are found at Penn State.”
Particularly, the task force found that women, LGBTQIA+ individuals, first-generation college students and Black, Hispanic or multiple race individuals were more likely to report incidences of food insecurity. The data also showed evidence that food insecurity varied widely by Penn State campus location and students at a higher risk of depression were more likely to be food insecure than those with a lower risk.
Based on the data and subsequent findings, the task force has released its recommendations for various strategic initiatives regarding food distribution; prevention and response programs; food pantries; the student emergency fund; and housing and institutional policies. To view the task force report and recommendations, please visit the Student Affairs site.
The task force has begun work with Starfish, the academic advising tools selected by Penn State to integrate with LionPATH, as way to participate in the #RealCollege Survey, an effort of The Hope Center for College, Community and Justice to track the lived experiences of today’s students outside of classroom instruction. Penn State’s existing license for the Starfish Enterprise Success Platform includes the ability to assess student food and housing insecurity at scale and to target outreach that is specific to each campus.
The group also is working with Swipe Out Hunger, a national non-profit organization, committed to ending college student hunger, similar to Penn State’s Turn the Tables that was piloted in spring 2019. The task force is additionally focused on more long-term, permanent solutions. The group, via its subcommittees, will explore initiatives including, but not limited to: expanding wholesale food purchasing programs across the Commonwealth; providing perishable and refrigerated items where possible to support food pantries; and leveraging a food notification app at smaller campuses to make students aware of surplus or excess food from events or meetings, which also will reduce food waste.
To lessen housing insecurity, the task force also is exploring the creation of housing scholarships, emergency housing options, and break housing for summer and holidays.
“Students who are experiencing these insecurities don’t always feel comfortable telling us about their situation,” said Sara Thorndike, senior vice president for Finance and Business. “We want students to know they don’t need to struggle in silence. We are here to be part of the solution. Not having a safe place to sleep or going hungry isn’t something that any of our students should have to experience. We want our efforts to identify housing and food resources to help students at all of our campuses so they can focus on their studies instead of worrying how their basic needs will be met.”
Another critical aspect of the task force’s recommendations includes sustainable funding for various student-centered programs such as the Lion’s Pantry at University Park and other similar initiatives on Commonwealth campuses, and the Student Emergency Fund, which is in place to assist students with financial issues. The group will work to identify institutional resources to support its recommendations and to create a robust fundraising campaign to augment institutional resources. Additionally, the task force aims to review and revise University policies to support food and housing security, as well as partner with the Penn State’s office of Governmental and Community Relations to advocate at the state and federal level.
As Penn State continues to work to alleviate food and housing insecurities, there are additional resources to support students such as the Student Care and Advocacy Office, the Student Insurance Advocate, the Sokolov-Miller Family Financial and Life Skills Center and Counseling and Psychological Services.