When the Legislature returns next week, it is sure to resume work on a bill to address food aid for college students. The hunger-free campuses bill would provide funding for schools that set up programs with several designated services.
This is a good initiative and makes sense. Attending college is a financial challenge that leaves some students in difficulty just sustaining the basics of the rest of their lives. Worrying about making ends meet and getting enough to eat, or worse still enduring poor nutrition, only distract from higher learning and make it less effective.
Legislators and college administrators, though, should take care that the food aid programs they set up don’t unduly contribute to the bigger problems colleges face.
Food aid fits well with outreach programs to help lower-income students into the college track. Stockton University recently announced a state-funded program that will help 100 Atlantic City and Pleasantville students enroll at its city campus this year. Promising high school students will get summer enrichment courses, mentoring, and career- and financial-aid counseling. A hunger-free campus could help them stay focused on advancing their lives with a college degree.
The Hunger-Free Campus Act would provide grants to colleges designated such by the state secretary of higher education. To qualify, they must:
• establish a campus hunger task force
• assign a staffer to help students enroll in federal nutrition assistance
• provide options for using federal SNAP vouchers
• set up a food pantry on campus
• develop a program to allow students to share meal plan credits
Colleges have been addressing student nutritional help on their own and done some of this already. Stockton opened a food pantry on its Atlantic City campus in November and pantries already exist at Rowan and Rutgers universities.
The challenge for legislators crafting the bill and administrators implementing state requirements will be to create programs that address actual student nutritional needs -- including making better food choices -- without worsening other serious problems.
For example, the grants may not add much to state spending, but the state is already in a fiscal crisis that’s cutting off school aid elsewhere.
Colleges, of course, have multiple financial issues -- they’re far too expensive, non-education costs, such as administration, have grown excessively, and too many graduates are burdened with crippling debt and poor job prospects. Having colleges provide social services risks contributing to those problems if not done as efficiently as possible.
It’s a bit worrisome that the statistics being used to push for college food aid are soft. One cited by legislators is that in a November almost half of the nation’s college students said they were unsure of where their next meal would come from. Such surveys and questions are like asking students if they would like some free food options.
The data on college costs and student debt is rock solid. Bigger and more certain problems deserve attention too.