WATCH | One in five college student suffers from food insecurity, so this college opened a food pantry to help out.
A growing trend
Two months ago, George Washington University in Washington, D.C., opened a food pantry to help poorer students who were skipping meals to make ends meet. Today, that food pantry serves more than 300 students.
But GWU isn't the first to open a pantry for students -- there are at least 395 colleges and universities in the nation that have done the same. Four years ago, that number was closer to five.
Students from GWU volunteer one or two hours a week to clean or stock the pantry. They currently have about 150 student volunteers.
Food insecurity is the problem
Annabel Virela, a grad student at GWU, is one of the millions of college students across the country who struggle with food insecurity. The Hunger on Campus 2016 study found that roughly 22 percent of college students are in Virela's position.
Food insecurity is defined as the lack of reliable access to sufficient quantities of affordable, nutritious food. In 2015, a study by the Wisconsin HOPE Lab found that 43 percent of students surveyed didn't have enough money to eat balanced meals.
To get access to the student food pantry, students apply online anonymously. All that is requested is a student ID number -- no financial documents are required.
'I remember going eating one meal a day'
"Food security has always been a big problem for me in my life," said Annabel Virela as she was going into GWU's food pantry, called The Store. "When I was in undergrad, I had struggled with food security, and I remember going eating one meal a day."
It's for these types of students that GWU decided to open The Store. The pantry works on an anonymous honor code. Students apply for access online, get access on their student badge and can enter the pantry unsupervised.
"Our core values is faith and trust. We are on a system that if you need it, we believe that you need it."
—Lydia Johnson, Student Manager at The Store
The Store at GWU is stocked with one ton of food from the Capital Area Food Bank every two weeks.
"We have a network of about 150 [student] volunteers right now," said Lydia Johnson, a student anad logistics manager for The Store.
The school says that around five new students apply for access to The Store every day. There are about 26,000 undergraduate and graduate students at GWU.
Why schools are opening food pantries
Tim Miller, associate dean of students at GWU, will be the first to admit that he didn't know what food insecurity was when he first heard the term last year. In March 2016, the administration decided to do some research and found that more students than they expected suffered from food insecurity.
"We heard about the national issue," said Miller. "Then we tried to understand it more on a local level. And then we found out all these other schools were doing this."
Annabel Virela is a graduate student at GWU who says she used to ask "rich students" at her school for their leftovers, or offer tutoring services in exchange for meals.
The first step
College food pantries are great, but "more proactive measures to prevent hunger" need to be taken.
That's according to Sara Goldrick-Rab, who founded the Wisconsin HOPE Lab at the University of Wisconsin, the only translational research laboratory seeking ways to make college more affordable.
She says the first step for a lot of colleges is awareness -- a lot of schools don't know their students have food insecurity.
"Campuses that don't have pantries either don't yet realize they need one, or don't know how to start one," Goldrick-Rab told Circa via email.
"In a few cases, they may also think it's unnecessary, but that goes back to awareness."
In elementary and high school, students might be able to qualify for "free lunch" programs. Talk of that goes out the window in the college application process.
GWU, which sits adjacent to a Whole Foods, partnered with the store to give customers free reusable bags. For Thanksgiving, the store donated $5 from every hot meal purchased to help stock The Store.
What schools can do
For schools who are looking to help out their food-insecure students, Goldrick-Rab's Hunger on Campus report has some recommendations.
Among them is everything from food pantries, SNAP ("food stamp") retailers on campus to shelters for homeless students.
Miller, who started the food pantry at GWU, says a good starting point is the College and University Food Bank Alliance.
A support system
Goldrick-Rab points to the University of California system, which recently allotted $3.1 million to combat food insecurity.
Virela, who says she used to ask her wealthy friends for their leftovers and offer tutoring lessons for food, says it's nice to have The Store on campus.
"Now I'm a graduate student, and I have more of a means to support myself," said Virela. "But it's nice to know that just in case I struggle, I have this as a backup."
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