Jessica Mills is a driven business major at Lehman College with plans to attend dental school after graduating next year.
She’s also a single mom who has experienced homelessness and hunger.
That’s why she manages the college food pantry three days a week used by fellow students who might not have money for a hot meal. No one asks for bank statements or Social Security numbers at the food pantry. Nourishment is given with no questions asked.
“This is for anybody who’s hungry,” Mills said.
Homelessness and hunger are a rising problem for City University of New York students for a variety of reasons, including stagnant wages, shrinking social safety nets, less financial aid and rising tuitions. That’s all according to a new study released by the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice.
Temple University professor Sara Goldrick-Rab, the Hope Center’s founder, shared her study surveying nearly 22,000 CUNY students during a news conference at Lehman on March 27. She found nearly half the students had limited or uncertain access to safe and nutritious food. More than half faced challenges in paying rent and utilities, and 14 percent were outright homeless.
Despite that, just 40 percent of homeless respondents received government assistance, and only 20 percent of hungry students received Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits. That could be because they are unaware of the programs, are scared to apply, don’t meet work requirements, or aren’t eligible because of their existing income, Goldrick-Rab said.
Able-bodied adults without dependents are eligible for SNAP long term only if they work 20 hours per week. Yet attending school is not considered work under SNAP guidelines.
“College students are working in extremely large numbers,” Goldrick-Rab said, “though many of them are still unable to make ends meet.”
Nearly 90 percent of homeless students were working or actively looking for work, according to the survey. About 22 percent worked more than 30 hours per week, compared to 17 percent of students with stable homes working the same amount.
Data shows that CUNY graduates go on to careers that ensure a lifetime of economic stability, Goldrick-Rab said. But that’s only for degree-earning students. A week of awful luck can derail even the most dedicated student. Something as simple as not being able to afford bus fare on a test day can sink an academic career. Many housing- and food-insecure students never graduate.
“Students hear that it’s all about the grades and they want to get the grades,” Goldrick-Rab said, “but their grades depend as much on how well they sleep at night as it does on how many hours they spend studying.”
Lehman College took steps years ago to address student hunger and homelessness, offering emergency loans, for instance, to students who need to pay rent or utility bills. In 2017, students from Lehman’s Advanced Leadership Certification program established the food pantry where Mills and other student volunteers spend time.
College kids are usually hungry. Students will dive right into the finger food offered at campus events, said Suzette Ramsundar, Lehman’s associate director of campus life. But she noticed a troubling element to some students’ dependence on them. She and a few colleagues began keeping snacks in the office for hungry students who might not have any other source or food. It was then Ramsundar proposed establishing a real food pantry to her Advanced Leadership students.
“They started telling me about this student they know who is hungry and this other student who is homeless,” Ramsundar said. “A lot of stories began to surface about their peers who really needed help.”
After a successful pilot program based on donations, the college began funding the pantry, although it remains a student-run initiative.
Mills was a natural choice to lead the food pantry. Besides being naturally compassionate, she knows what these students go through. When her marriage fell apart in 2016, Mills had no permanent home for about six months.
“I had to pick up everything, move to a different location with my kids, and I had to start over completely,” she said.
Besides working and parenting, the search for a new home absorbed the time she’d planned to dedicate to education. Mills planned to enter dental school once her kids started kindergarten. Losing her home almost ended that dream.
“I had to put my passion on hold while I got control of my life, and that was very difficult because I’d been working so hard to go back to school,” she said. “But that’s life. That kind of thing happens, and you just have to pick up the pieces and keep moving.”
Her work paid off. Mills found an apartment, and soon after enrolled at Lehman. Her life stabilized and she could finally dedicate her time to finishing her education. Yet she couldn’t ignore her fellow students struggling to find stable housing and food.
“And that’s why I’m here,” Mills said. “I’ve been through that and I want to help others who are going through that. I can’t imagine going through what I did while trying to study for a midterm or a final.”
The pantry serves about 65 students per week. It offers kitchen staples and grab-and-go food for students running to class. They also stock baby food, which they distribute almost just as fast as they get in.
To those who are struggling and who don’t reach out, Mills says her door is open.
“Everybody goes through some sort of struggle in their life,” Mills said. “There’s nothing wrong with asking for help. But if you don’t tell your story, no one will ever know what you’re going through.”