#HungerTownHall Sheds Light on Housing and Food Insecurity on Community College Campuses

A report released by The Wisconsin HOPE Lab and the Association of Community College Trustees shows high rates of food and housing insecurity on community college campuses

On Wednesday, The Wisconsin HOPE Lab and the Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT) released a report titled “Hungry and Homeless in College” at a town hall hosted by the George Washington University. The report contains the results of a survey of 33,000 students at 70 community colleges nationwide and finds food insecurity rates ranging from 20 to 40 percent, and housing insecurity rates reaching as high as 50 percent. Of homeless students, report co-author Sara Goldrick-Rab observed that “most homeless students left home because they felt unsafe.”

The town hall opened with remarks from the George Washington University Executive Director of Sustainability Kathleen Merrigan, ACCT President and CEO J. Noah Brown, MAZON National Organizer Samuel M. Chu, and Wisconsin HOPE Lab founder Goldrick-Rab, a professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple University.

ACCT President J. Noah Brown addresses town hall attendees

“The problem of food and housing insecurity among community college students is much greater than we thought,” said Brown. He noted that “the cost of expenses associated with attending college are often greater than tuition and fees,” causing many people to believe mistakenly that attending a community college is easily affordable.

Two panels discussed their expertise and work related to the issue of hunger and homelessness on community college campuses and held question and answer sessions. The first offered a local perspective with Sara Ducey, director of the Paul Peck Humanities Institute at Montgomery College, Elizabeth Zabala, an honors student at Montgomery College, and Jimmy Ramirez, a former Georgetown University student who now works for Google and who experienced homelessness and housing insecurity throughout high school and college. When asked what might be done to improve food and housing insecurity at community colleges, Ducey and Zabala identified the need for a more robust food pantries on campus, and for less expensive food in general. Ramirez discussed the stress involved with finding somewhere to stay during breaks from school. Typically, residence halls close and students in need can be left without food or shelter. The panel also pointed out that most community colleges do not offer student housing, and so their students often have greater difficulty finding housing throughout the year, not only during breaks.

Clare Cady, Amy Ellen Duke-Benfield, Bryce McKibben, and Rebecca Villarreal (from left to right)

The second panel featured Clare Cady of the College and University Food Bank Alliance, Amy Ellen Duke-Benfield of the Center for Law and Social Policy, Bryce McKibben of the U.S. Senate HELP Committee, and Rebecca Villarreal of the Kresge Foundation. Discussion focused on solutions like the partnership Tacoma Community College and Tacoma Housing Authority in Washington State have formed to provide housing and rental assistance to students who are homeless, or at serious risk of becoming homeless.  

During the town hall, Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.) tweeted about students who grew up in the foster-care system—a never-studied-before cohort profiled in “Hungry and Homeless in College.”

McKibben, who works for Sen. Murray, said that campus tours often showcase facilities such as gyms as healthy-lifestyle benefits to students, but that “food keeps students healthier than a gym can.” Chu praised the work of campus food pantries, but said that “we won’t food bank our way to the end of food insecurity,” urging policy changes that will help students to meet basic needs.

The survey found that these problems are not endemic to specific regions – there are food and housing insecure students across the country in urban and rural communities. Going forward we will need to work together and share ideas to ensure that students can work towards degrees without worrying about where their next meal will come from, or where they will sleep.

The report’s findings have been picked up by a number of media outlets, including the Washington Post, NPR, The Atlantic and others, and the #HungerTownHall was the number-two trending topic on Twitter in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday.

At the town hall’s conclusion, Goldrick-Rab announced that the Wisconsin HOPE Lab plans to conduct a more thorough survey this fall, and invited colleges interested in participating to contact the organization.

For more information about the town hall, please find a link to the live recording here, and the full report here.

Jacob Bray is an associate writer for the Association of Community College Trustees.

About ACCT Now

Community College Insights & Perspectives

ACCT Now is the go-to resource for issues affecting community colleges. In addition to reporting and research, you’ll have access to of-the-moment legislative updates. We’ve also included articles, reports, and research from outside sources that benefit the ACCT community.

Washington D.C. skyline