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"Hunger-free campus" efforts aren't just for students who would miss meals without them

Pa “hunger-free campus” efforts aren’t just for students who would miss meals without them
Pa “hunger-free campus” efforts aren’t just for students who would miss meals without them 02:11

WEST CHESTER, Pa. (CBS) -– At West Chester University's "resource pantry," the workers who ring up the food and supplies, but collect no money for them, don't ask for proof of a student's financial need.

The reason?

"We want to make sure there's no stigma attached to using these services," said Elizabeth Munz, the school's faculty representative for its Center for Social Engagement and Social Impact.

And anyway, how do you define need? Certainly, Munz said, some students would go without meals or basic sanitation supplies if not for the pantry. But others?

"I tell my students in classes all the time, hey, if you come to campus and you realize you didn't bring a lunch and it would really be helpful to you, come grab a lunch," Munz said. "Sometimes it's week to week. You're having trouble making rent, and there's a trade-off, right? 'Am I going to make rent this month, or am I going to spend more on groceries as the food prices rise?'"

She said students in that situation are at greater risk of dropping out of school because they often feel forced to spend more hours doing paid work and less time studying.

"The main priority here should be education," said Joseph Harkins, a WCU sophomore whose first experience at the pantry was as a user of it during his freshman year but who now works there serving others. "It shouldn't be having to make sure that you're being fed. It shouldn't be having to make sure that you have enough money to pay your rent."

WCU's pantry, which dates to 2016, helped the school earn a designation as a Pennsylvania "hunger-free campus." WCU also helps students meet basic needs with assistance in other areas, such as applying for SNAP benefits.

"They're just doing remarkable things to ensure that every student has everything they need," said Kim McCurdy, the Pennsylvania Department of Education's bureau director for postsecondary and adult education. She said WCU is one of 61 "hunger-free campuses" in the commonwealth – and can serve as a mentor organization for some of the other nearly other 300 trade schools, colleges and universities in the commonwealth that haven't yet received the designation.

Indeed, Munz said WCU has recently hosted groups from other universities.

The pantry gets much of its food from its county food bank – and other food plus most other supplies, from laundry detergent to shampoo to feminine hygiene products – through private donations. Munz said some people donate via the pantry's Amazon wish list.

"We're college students, so our budgets are a little tight," said Angela Catlett, a junior from Upper Darby, Delaware County, who is studying business.

McCurdy said that's now more true than ever.

"Students today aren't necessarily only 18 years old, living with their parents or coming directly from their parent's household," she said. "Some of those students are parenting. Some of those students are working full-time or more than that. And so sometimes they're struggling."

She said the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the trends.

At WCU, Munz said 4% of students reported using the pantry prior to the pandemic; now that figure has nearly doubled to 7%. 

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