The idea of college students living on cheap Ramen noodles has become a trope. But officials on the UW campus say a surprising number are struggling to balance costs, and flocking to a new food-bank program.
Last spring, more than 100 University of Washington students put aside fears of stigma and accepted bags of canned soup, cereal and other groceries from food pantries set up around the campus. Without this help, many said, they might have gone hungry.
The idea of college students living on Ramen has become a trope. But officials on the UW campus say students — particularly those on financial aid — often debate whether to buy textbooks or a healthful meal.
“This is something we’d been hearing about for a while, and it’s very real,” said Marisa Herrera, executive director of the Samuel E. Kelly Ethnic Cultural Center, which hosted a pilot food bank last spring. The need was serious enough that Herrera has continued it into the fall.
“Just two or three weeks ago we had a mass of people lined up across our lobby before we were even open. They were all there for the food bank,” Herrera said. “It’s been really exciting to see there’s a need we’re meeting. But it’s also very troubling.”
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Lines of hungry students may run counter to the image many Seattleites hold of an increasingly affluent population at the UW. But data collected from 74 percent of the 114 students served during the test phase in May showed that nearly half were the first generation in their families to attend college, a third were caring for dependents and 23 percent had difficulty getting enough food each week. Most were 21 or younger.
The food pantries, modeled on farmers markets, are mobile. Once a month stands pop up in the student-life HUB, and once a month at the ethnic cultural center. Word has spread — across the campus and across the country. Officials from New York University got in touch recently to ask about doing something similar.
Sean Ferris, a student-affairs specialist who helped coordinate the food banks, said faculty and staff from various university departments had noticed students going without food and expressed concern. Financial aid, he added, does not necessarily cover all needs.
“One day everything’s fine,” he said. “You have enough funding and your job is going well. But then something happens — a sickness at home, or you stop working in order to focus on studies, and that financial security starts slipping away and you’re choosing between paying for rent or for books or struggling to put food on the table.”
The UW is not alone. Last month, a national survey of nearly 3,800 students from 34 colleges in 12 states found that 22 percent were subsisting at the lowest levels of food security. At community colleges, 13 percent of students were homeless.
Herrera says she has seen that herself at the UW — students living in their cars, couch-surfing, or trying to support children while they earn a degree.
“We see college students wearing their backpacks, going to class, and we don’t think of them going without,” she said. “People are starting to understand what a hidden issue this is.”
The reality of hunger became inescapable to Katie McCarthy, a 27-year-old graduate student who wrote a report on the food-pantry pilots on campus last spring.
Shortly after completing her bachelor’s degree, McCarthy worked two jobs — one in a high-end grocery store, the other at a low-income middle school.
“I remember looking at the carts of these shoppers, so full of colorful fruits and vegetables, then going to teach kids who I knew would not have a meal at home,” she said. “The disparity was just so stark.”