George Washington University opened a new kind of facility in 2016, in an unmarked room in the basement of a residence hall. It’s a free food bank for students who might otherwise skip meals to save costs.
The GW store, which is “run” by a cardboard hippo with a friendly speech bubble, is just one of nearly 400 member food banks in the wide-ranging College and University Food Bank Alliance. The four-year-old program has more than 400 participating colleges, and supports its food banks through donations. Each bank is supported with a four-year donation, and purchases its stock from local off-campus food banks.
Though only 12 students attended the grand opening of the informal shop, the logbook in which the anonymous customers are supposed to note what they take was recording almost 300 students a day.
And students expressed their gratitude in the form of notes left at the food bank. One single mother wrote, “You cannot imagine how much relief this gift has brought me on so many levels. Yes, we go to GW. Yes, we sometimes can’t afford food. Thank you for hearing our voice and caring. I love you, too.”
The food banks are a response to the rapidly rising costs of college life and the glacially slow grinding of the legislative change that will help to ease those costs. It takes two to 10 years for any major legislative change to happen, depending on the state. Only recently have state universities been allowed to accept food stamps in their cafeterias, and many private universities, like GW, still cannot do so.
An informal survey of students made by the College and University Food Bank Alliance several years ago reported that more than half of food-insecure students (that is, students who skip more than two meals a week due to financial difficulty) work at least 20 hours a week during the school year, challenging the popular perception that students are feeling more entitled to being completely supported by their university. The numbers are more severe in community college, with as many as 25 percent of all students being food-insecure, and more than 50 percent of those working part- or full-time.