ATLANTIC CITY — As a transfer student who never had a meal plan before, Elijah Jacobs thought he could save some money with the cheapest meal plan available at Stockton University.
However, after running out of meals and maxing out his credit card, Jacobs, 22, of Bridgeton, was in a tough spot.
The next year, Jacobs opened an email from the college and found out about its food pantry, so the senior resident adviser at the Atlantic City campus quickly signed up.
“Sometimes students feel shy or shameful, but it’s worth it,” Jacobs said. “You can’t go to classes starving.”
Food insecurity is not limited to low-income families and struggling parents. Across the nation, college campuses are trying to address an emerging issue of hunger among students unable to afford basic food necessities.
When Stockton opened its new campus in fall 2018, welcoming more than 500 new residents to the city, it opened its food pantry almost immediately after.
“I think that sometimes people will look at these beautiful buildings and assume that everyone who lives here has everything they need,” said Haley Baum, assistant dean of students in Atlantic City. “And in fact, it’s not the case.”
Campus hunger isn’t necessarily a new problem, but awareness of the issue has grown in recent years. In response, states like New Jersey have passed bills and colleges are creating programs intended to provide greater food access in higher education.
The food pantry is just one aspect of that.
“The bottom line is you can’t study if you’re hungry,” said Craig Stambaugh, Stockton’s assistant vice president of engagement and community development. “There’s probably a lot of assumptions out there that all college students have money and have enough to eat and all that sort of thing, and that’s really not the case.”
A 2019 report by the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice found 48% of community college students and 41% of four-year university students who responded to the center’s survey were food insecure. The survey was sent to nearly 1.5 million students at 123 colleges and universities, and about half responded.
For Atlantic City, which is struggling to retain residents and stabilize its property tax base, meeting the hunger needs at Stockton’s city campus could be a way to turn students into future homeowners.
Jim Johnson, special counsel to Gov. Phil Murphy and co-author of the state’s transition report on Atlantic City, said the state, city and university need to work together “to understand and address the needs of Stockton students and transplanted entrepreneurs so that they engage in the community and see Atlantic City as a place to launch both career and family.”
Baum said meeting the food access needs at Stockton is a step in that direction. She said that since opening in Atlantic City, Stockton has had more of an opportunity to highlight the rich culture of the city.
“And we try to focus on the fact that our students are part of the community,” she said.
To provide greater access, Baum said it takes promoting greater awareness of services. She said the other part is taking away the stigma of needing help, especially with a problem so widespread.
“I talk to a lot of students who say, ‘Oh I wish I would have come to talk to you or Craig (Stambaugh) … sooner. I always knew that there was a food assistance program, but I thought it was for other people,’” Baum said.