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Rent, tuition come before food for some UNH students

New Hampshire Sunday News

December 27. 2016 8:35PM

Senior Alana Davidson worked with University of New Hampshire administrators to create a virtual food bank for needy students to obtain meals in the dining halls. (COURTESY)

DURHAM — When Alana Davidson’s research revealed that 25 percent of her fellow students at the University of New Hampshire had experienced hunger, she was shocked.

She decided to do something about it.

Thanks to her efforts, UNH recently started the "Swipe It Forward" program, allowing students, faculty and others to donate to a virtual food bank to provide meals for students who would otherwise go without. The meals are stored on swipe cards that let students eat at campus dining halls.

“What we’re trying to do here is create awareness of the issue and say to students: You’re not alone. There are resources here that can help,” Davidson said. “We want you to be successful.”

Davidson, a 21-year-old nutrition major from Hamden, Conn., said it’s a bigger problem than she realized.

After her freshman year, Davidson was a summer intern at a mental health center in New Haven, Conn., working on a project to provide healthier food for clients on public assistance.

“It really opened my eyes to hunger issues,” she said. “Growing up, I had never thought too much about it.”

Returning to UNH that fall, she started to do research among college students. She said the U.S. Department of Agriculture looks at household and childhood hunger, “but they don’t look at college students.”

Yet college is where the safety net drops away; there are no free and reduced-fee lunch programs as there are in elementary and secondary schools. And while needy adults can apply for public assistance, she said, “It’s extremely hard for college students to qualify for food stamps.”

“So it kind of leaves this segment of the population without much attention and without much assistance.”

Paying for books, not food

UNH has about 12,650 undergraduates; about 55 percent of them live on campus and are required to buy meal plans, according to university officials.

When Davidson gave the USDA hunger survey to fellow students in general nutrition classes, 12 percent reported they were “food insecure.” That’s higher than the statewide figure of 10 percent, she said.

She decided she needed more data. So she launched a broader study in the fall of 2015, including undergraduate, graduate and commuter students. About 1,000 answered the survey; 25 percent said they were food insecure.

Eight percent reported skipping meals, going hungry because they couldn’t afford food.

“It was shocking,” Davidson said.

She presented her findings to college administrators last February.

David May, associate vice president for business affairs, said he was stunned when Davidson shared her research results with administrators. “I’ve been involved in college food service since 1978, and never really thought about this,” he said. “I was shocked.”

“There are students that are making a decision of buying books versus having a meal,” he said.

Swipe it Forward

Davidson researched what other campuses have done before, coming up with the Swipe it Forward program.

Now the university is reaching out through social media, health services and the counseling center, trying to get students to sign up for the program, May said. It’s all kept confidential, and because students are using the same swipe cards as everyone else, there’s no way to tell who’s getting a free meal.

Now a senior, Davidson is still working on hunger issues; for her honors thesis, she’s interviewing students who are food insecure.

What surprised her most? “The hidden struggle,” she said.

“Students talk about how lucky people are to have a meal plan, and about how they’re eating one meal a day,” she said. “They can’t afford fresh fruits and vegetables; they’re eating beans and rice.”

And most tell her they don’t talk to their parents or friends about it.

Food is the easiest thing to cut from a student’s budget, Davidson said. “You can go a day without eating; you can’t really go a day without paying tuition or heat.”

“But people don’t realize how detrimental that can be to your body and to how well you’re doing at school and other things in your life.”

Growing awareness

There’s a growing awareness of food insecurity on college campuses, Davidson said. UNH recently joined the College and University Food Bank Alliance, which has quadrupled its membership to more than 300 schools in the past two years, she said.

May said he hopes getting students to participate in Swipe it Forward is only the beginning. “We’re also hoping that it provides an opportunity for students to come in and talk to people, try to see how else we can help them,” he said.

Davidson recently met with the deans council at UNH and is working with the university farms to donate extra produce to a local food pantry. She’s also working with the food pantry to schedule student-only hours, to help reduce the stigma of asking for help.

After she graduates, Davidson plans to continue her studies in food policy.

“We live in one of the wealthiest countries in the world and we have millions of people who go to bed every single night hungry,” she said. “We produce enough food to feed everyone. I think it’s unacceptable that we have this happening at such a high scale.”

But she also said her work on the issue at UNH has made her more optimistic.

“I think we can end hunger in this country, and UNH now is a step closer to being a hunger-free campus, and that’s exciting.”

It proves, she said, “When people come together, we can make a difference.”

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