I am far too familiar with the realities of growing up poor and hungry in the U.S. When I was young, my family of seven shared one room, and I shared a twin-sized mattress with my older sister until I was in the 8th grade. Going to college felt like a reach, but my mother and high school mentors never stopped believing in me and encouraging me.
I enrolled in Pasadena City College (PCC) after graduating from high school. I traveled for two hours on the Metro to get to school every morning. Some nights, I wouldn’t get home until 11 pm.
My peers and counselors didn’t know that when I was on campus, I regularly skipped meals because I didn’t have enough money to purchase food from the cafeteria. To get through the day, I usually depended on the free food that student clubs and local churches offered students.
I was grateful for community college since my tuition was fully waived, but I struggled to purchase expensive books and materials with financial aid. Back home our family couldn’t afford to pay for Wi-Fi, so staying on campus for long hours felt like my only option. Food seemed like the easiest expense to cut, but doing so caused constant hunger and a feeling of anxiety when I was in the classroom.
When I graduated from PCC, I transferred to UC Davis. I thought transferring would solve many of the financial problems I faced at community college; I thought universities offered meal plans as part of their financial aid packages, but that assumption turned out to be wrong. At UC Davis, I found myself struggling to find enough money to pay for housing and food.
Looking for help back home was not an option — in fact, there were many times I needed to send money home. At my lowest point, during the summer quarter of 2016, I ran into delayed financial aid problems. I was a full-time student with a part-time research job, and I had $20 in my bank account with no secure housing for the next couple of weeks.
I broke down in the middle of campus and called my mother. She cried with me, and I know she felt helpless because all she could send was a couple of extra dollars. That weekend, I met up with my campus fellowship mentor and shared my frustration and anxiety with her. She immediately opened her home to me, expected nothing in return. She was a godsend.
I consider myself fortunate because I know many students don’t have someone to turn to. It shouldn’t take “fortune” for students to stop experiencing hunger. My biggest regret is not looking further into SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) during my college years; it is my hope that students experiencing hunger will have improved access and information about government assistance benefits.
Student hunger on college campuses is a problem that is growing across California, and across the country. As the cost of living increases, wages stagnate, and more first generation students enter college, the need to provide students with support so they don’t experience hunger is crucial. For low-income students, college is a pathway out of generational poverty; the last thing students investing in their future need to worry about is where their next meal will come from.
At the request of lawmakers, including Senator Elizabeth Warren, the U.S. Government Accountability Office released a report in January recommending the government take steps to find out how many college students are hungry across the country, and to clarify SNAP student eligibility rules. I traveled to Washington DC to share my experience with lawmakers as they begin to seek solutions to this issue.
I’m glad the issue of student hunger on campus is gaining attention, but it’s critical that immediate solutions are available for students.
Fortunately, advocates like Western Center have been working on this issue for years, and have made progress in implementing solutions. Last year, Western Center was a lead co-sponsor for AB 1894 (Weber) in California, which allows colleges and universities to run CalFresh Restaurant Meals Programs to address student hunger.
The passage of AB 1894 built on the previous four years of policy victories in the area. The first was AB 1930 (Skinner) in 2014, which required the California Department of Social Services to identify which student jobs could be considered training programs, so they could be exempt from the student work rule that prohibited receipt of SNAP benefits.
Additionally, Western Center and a coalition of anti-hunger and student rights advocates called for continued and increased funding for the Hunger Free Campus Initiative in the 2018-19 Budget Act. The request was set at $5 Million for the UC System, $5 Million for the CSU System and $20 Million for Community Colleges. The final Budget Act investments approved $10 Million for Community Colleges, but failed to fully fund both the UC and CSU System Programs, awarding each only $1.5 Million.
Western Center’s continued commitment to fighting for increased funding for this work will have a significant impact for students across the state, and serves as a model for ways other states can address student hunger. Hopefully, with its new Governor and with increased federal interest, California will take the necessary steps to fully fund programs to eradicate student hunger in the state.
Ending hunger on college campuses will require sustainable solutions across financial aid and college systems, targeted toward the most vulnerable students. That means we must invest in students where they are at, and do everything in our power to make sure they have access to the tools and resources they need to nourish their minds and bodies.
I am thankful for the help I received on my quest for higher education. Now I want to make sure every student has the opportunity to invest in their education without the debilitating burden of hunger.
Yesenia is currently an Emerson National Hunger Fellow with the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute working on Strategies to Reduce Student Hunger on Mass Campuses. Originally from South Central Los Angeles, Yesenia moved into the Ramona Gardens Housing Projects in Boyle Heights, CA, where her pursuit for social justice grew. While at Western Center, her work on school lunch shaming led to the successful passage of Senate Bill 250 and district-wide policy change within Los Angeles Unified School District. Her work serves as a framework for advocates seeking legislation against school lunch shaming.