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Education News

#RealCollege Conference Comes To Houston To Fight Hunger And Homelessness On Campuses

Between a third and a half of all college students in the country struggle to find enough food to eat or a place to live.


Since it opened in January 2018, the student market at Texas Woman’s University provides about 80 students – mostly in graduate programs – with 60 pounds of food a month.

Some 500 college educators and researchers are heading to Houston this weekend to discuss #RealCollege, which involves solving hunger and homelessness among college students.

In fact, between a third and a half of all college students in the country struggle to find enough food to eat or a place to live, according to research by Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor at Temple University and the founding director of the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice. She said they're drawn to Houston for their fourth annual conference because of the Houston Food Bank's innovative program called Food for Change.

“And that is to say, ‘Why don't we use food to help people on their way to economic security?'” Goldrick-Rab said in an interview.

She said the food bank’s partnership with Houston Community College has brought her team to Houston for research as well. She discussed that and other aspects of these twin challenges on campuses in an interview with Houston Public Media. Below are highlights from the conversation.

The #RealCollege Convening will be held Saturday and Sunday at HCC’s West Houston Institute and people can also access the meeting’s livestream for free online.

On How Widespread Food Insecurity and Housing Insecurity Are On College Campuses:

A: Well, our sense of how widespread it is comes from colleges and universities letting us do surveys of their students. And I want to be really upfront that predominantly community colleges and public universities have let us take a look. And at those places we tend to see rates between one-third of students and one-half of students dealing with food and or housing insecurity, which is obviously quite substantial. The other thing is that we can see that homelessness rates run approximately around 10% or even as many as 15% among students at community colleges. So, it really seems like this is one of those hidden challenges that’s been affecting a lot of people which really hasn’t gotten attention.

On Why These Issues Have Been Under the Radar:

A: I think there are a couple of things. We’ve really clung to this idea in this country that talent and hard work and not your family’s income will determine whether or not you go to college. And at the same time, we’ve put federal policies into place to help people from all backgrounds get to school. And we did that because the economy demands it — but we didn’t really change how colleges and universities support students nor did we change public policy. So, I think that it has been very convenient for us to continue to do things the same way over and over even as students change and even as their needs evolve. And we’re not really great at, in this country to be honest, about recognizing that the poverty faced by people is not their own fault, but is really the result of structural breakages and flaws in the system. So it’s been easier to ignore it.

On Innovative Solutions in Houston:

Food pantries are a good start and there are more than 700 colleges and universities around the country with food pantries. But in many ways, they’re kind of a seductive solution because they really do make this sound kind of simple. The idea that when a student faces an emergency, they come to some sort of storage room and take some cans off the shelf or some fruit and vegetables, if you’re really lucky — and, you know, that the problem is solved. Again it sounds easy.

We’re coming to Houston because the Houston Food Bank has a really innovative approach that goes beyond the food pantry. They have a program called “Food For Change” and that is to say, ‘Why don’t we use food to help people on their journey to economic security?’ And it’s because of their partnership with Houston Community College that my team at the Hope Center has gotten so involved in Houston. That approach — a food scholarship approach — tries to help students before they become food insecure. In other words, to do prevention. And we really think that’s where the movement needs to head is to programs that say, ‘Look, let’s stop this at the core. If a student doesn’t have enough money to pay for college, let’s not pretend like they’re going to get through school and be OK. Let’s give them additional support.’

On What States Like Texas Could Do To Change Policy and Solve This:

There’s a lot that the state of Texas could be doing.I know that they want to create more college graduates and these supports are absolutely critical. There are a number of holes in current policy that could be filled in. For example, private developers who are necessary for building affordable housing currently do not face incentives to build affordable housing for college students because they’re not eligible for the low-income housing tax credit. The state could fill in that gap and create some tax incentives for private developers to actually create affordable housing, perhaps starting with community college students … It would also be important for the state to step in to try to help enroll more students in the federal SNAP program, which means helping them to essentially get additional support beyond financial aid for their food needs. Now this is very efficient for Texas. Taxpayers have already paid for the federal SNAP program. They could draw down those benefits into Texas to promote college graduation.

On How To Overcome Any Stigma Around Poverty:

It begins by recognizing that students are humans first and that’s our motto of the #RealCollege movement. Students are humans first means that if you want somebody to learn, you do have to recognize that their basic needs have to be met. And you can do it because you’re a caring person. You can do it because you view it as just. Or you can do it because it’s the most economically efficient thing to do … This can’t be that difficult.