When the pandemic forced colleges to shut down nationwide, many of the emergency resources students relied on fell far short of the demand. The public health emergency magnified many of the challenges students faced before the COVID-19 outbreak.
"Food insecurity looks different for every student and every home. Sometimes it means that at a certain time of the month, food is not as plentiful in the pantry or the fridge. Some students face that issue every day of the month," said Elaine Lipiz Gonzalez, dean of student support services at Fullerton College.
Like many colleges, Fullerton closed its on-campus food bank when classrooms went virtual.
“Basic needs is a theme that has come up time and time again when students communicate what they’re struggling with," said Lipiz Gonzalez.
Even before the pandemic, college students relied on help to fulfill this basic need. A national #RealCollege survey of nearly 86,000 students revealed 45 percent faced food insecurity in the last 30 days.
"They're struggling. They're incredibly resilient and strong students, but they're juggling that with a number of other responsibilities," said Lipiz Gonzales.
Nearly a month and a half after shutting down its food pantry, the community college launched a weekly drive-thru food distribution event. Before COVID-19, the campus pantry served about 200 students per week. When the weekly drive-thru launched in April, that number jumped to 420 students and now averages at around 320 students a week.
"I think the only thing a pandemic can do is accelerate and put under a microscope all of these issues," said David Gillanders, executive director of Pathways of Hope.
Five days a week, Fullerton students can also access the Pathways of Hope food pantry, which typically serves the homeless. It's a solution other colleges can encourage.
"Everyone's got to eat, so we really want to make sure people that are working on their education can eat, and it's a barrier and a challenge in these times for sure," said Gillanders.
It's unknown how many colleges had to shut down their campus food pantries. While state and federal emergency grants are helping some students with basic needs, advocates say its Band-Aid for the pervasive inequities among America's college students.
"Food insecurity, housing insecurity, transportation insecurity, mental health – those are all basic needs," said Lipiz Gonzalez.
And when they go unmet, the chances of succeeding in the classroom could be lost, too.