Rowan University sophomore Nicole Cummings saved money this year by forgoing a meal plan.

A job in dining services offered a paycheck and one free meal at work.

But it hasn’t been enough.

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Last week, she went to the Glassboro, Gloucester County, university’s new food pantry for staples, such as cereal, pasta and toothpaste.

“I didn’t think food would be such an issue,” said Cummings, 19, of Glassboro. “Food on campus is expensive, and groceries go so fast. I have gone to bed without dinner because I just don’t have anything.”

Hunger may seem like an unlikely college problem in a world of campus food courts, Ramen noodles and peanut butter.

But college officials are increasingly finding students forced to give up meals entirely. The choice may be buying food or paying for books, gas, rent or tuition.

“It’s a nameless, faceless problem, especially among students who moved off campus to save money,” said Rowan alternate student trustee Rbrey Singleton, 19, of Haledon, Passaic County. “They don’t realize how much food costs.”

Singleton and Rowan student government President Daniel Cardona spearheaded the opening of the Students Helping Other Profs, or SHOP, food pantry last month.

Similar efforts are growing at college campuses across the nation.

A 2016 Hunger on Campus report found 48 percent of students had suffered from food insecurity within the previous month. The report involved 3,765 students surveyed on 34 four-year and community college campuses in 12 states.

Results of a Hungry and Homeless in College survey at community colleges in 24 states found almost one-third of students had gone hungry in college.

In February, the state Senate Higher Education Commission held its first hearing on the issue. College officials said lack of food is often a symptom of larger financial issues.

“The food pantry is a Band-Aid,” said Kerri Willson, director of off-campus living at Rutgers New Brunswick. “We have to connect students with all resources.”

Jewel Daney, a case manager at Rutgers, testified about students who became homeless when their families moved or who were eating just one meal a day.

“They would attend college events to eat,” she said.

Rutgers University has an app that informs students about free events with food.

Stockton University last year began a meal-voucher program that has served more than 50 students about 600 meals. Applications increased this spring when the process went online, reducing the stigma for students who might be embarrassed to apply in person.

Stockton Assistant Dean of Students Craig Stambaugh said the vouchers are a short-term fix. The school also helps students find jobs or financial aid.

“I’ve had students with monthly bills of $2,000 for rent, their car, gas,” he said. “Some just need a couple of vouchers to get them to their next paycheck. Others need a long-term solution.”

Since the Rowan SHOP opened March 23, 70 students have used its services, according to Penny McPherson-Myers, associate vice president for diversity and organizational effectiveness.

Most of them live on campus. Most have financial hardships or small meal plans that ran out. Nearly half said they were looking for help to get through the week.

Rowan student Kerry Jules, of Union, is working less to prepare for finals. The pantry is helping him get through the semester, he said.

Seth Jackson, 19, of Baltimore, didn’t want to ask his parents for money.

“They help, but they don’t have a lot,” he said. “I’m really understanding my mother’s struggles as an adult.”

Montclair University Vice President for Student Development Karen Pennington testified at the Senate hearing about a student who sold her clothes to buy food and two sisters who live on one meal plan.

“That pushed us to help,” she said. Their year-old pantry includes household and personal items.

Foster children, who age out of the system at 18, are especially vulnerable without a family support system.

Bergen Community College in Bergen County has a food pantry. The concept is being discussed at Atlantic Cape Community College. The Cape May County campus has a table of “freebies” so students can grab a granola bar or notebook.

Some county college students are homeless and others are raising families, Lisa Pitz of the New Jersey Anti-Hunger Coalition testified at the hearing. She cited a 44-year-old mother who celebrated earning her nursing degree by bringing donations to her college food pantry.

The pantry was her lifeline, she said.

“Many students have multiple issues,” she said. “But poverty and hunger should not be a barrier to higher education.”

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609-272-7241 DDamico@pressofac.com Twitter @ACPressDamico

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