The 100 block of Decatur Street in downtown Atlanta is a cacophony of honking horns, coughing motors and fleeting foot traffic, where students scurry to Georgia State University classrooms in search of their future.
They are a complicated lot, a mix of old and young, black, white and other who more and more find their hopes threatened by, of all things, hunger.
For the longest time, it was as if they didn’t even exist. Then Nicole L. Johnson, a former coordinator of student assistance at Georgia State, began to notice students were facing challenges far beyond those presented in the classroom. As the cost of tuition and living expenses rise, some students aren’t sure where their next meal will come from.
The issue is a hard one to measure. There are little data on hungry college students but here at Georgia State, 75 percent of students need financial aid. Such a high percentage runs counter to what seems to be a middle class existence but officials say it, and increasing numbers of older students, help explain the rise in college food banks here and across the country.
Clare Cady co-founded of The College and University Food Bank Alliance in 2011 in response to the flagging economy and increased demand for food from students. That year 15 campuses signed on for the effort. Today, she said, more than 200 college campuses across the country have food banks and the number continues to grow.
The University of Georgia has had a food bank since 2011. Both Kennesaw State and Georgia Tech have one. The need was so great at UGA, it expanded its opening from three to five days a week last year.
With the opening of the Panther’s Pantry last spring, Georgia State is tackling the issue on its campus.
“Food security is an essential need and yet inadequate nourishment is a reality for many of our students,” said Leslie Knapp, a Georgia State graduate and registered dietitian.
Although campus meal plans offer unlimited access to an “all you can eat” dining experience, I know from experience those costs can be out of reach and impractical for many students. According to the GSU website, for instance, an unlimited seven-day meal plan for the 2015-2016 academic year, costs $1,898 a semester. A five-day plan saves students $101 per semester.
Reminds me of my cable bill. I feel like I’m being held hostage every time I pay.
When Johnson started sharing stories about hungry students a few years ago, GSU officials asked how they could help.
“Students weren’t dropping out of school for disinterest or grades, it was mostly for financial reasons,” said Cathy McCarroll, a retired GSU faculty member.
McCarroll and Knapp, along with other graduate nutrition students, drew up plans for a food pantry. With help from a few students and other campus supporters, Panther’s Pantry opened during the spring 2015 semester in the university’s old print shop, located on the ground floor parking deck of the Urban Life Building.
It’s a small, bright space at the corner of Piedmont and Decatur Street that is far enough from the street to allow for student privacy.
“It’s not always easy for a student to ask for food,” McCarroll said.
Senior nutrition majors, and pantry volunteers Sohee Ko, Lindsey Mikolaicik and Diana Parker can vouch for that.
Parker has never lacked food but she knows students who have, including a friend who confided in her that the only food she had was rice.
“It was a grave situation,” Parker said
The Pantry is run by Barbara Hopkins, an undergraduate program advisor who teaches in the Department of Nutrition, and the Nutrition Student network.
They estimate seeing about five students on each Wednesday they were open during the summer. They expect that number to increase exponentially this fall, when the pantry will be open on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and two Fridays a month.
Any student with a current Georgia State Panther ID card can get food from Panther’s Pantry. No questions asked.
Georgia State is situated in the middle of Atlanta’s food desert, defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as low-income communities located more than one mile from a reliable source of fresh produce and other healthy whole foods. Even if students have food stamps, they often run out before the end of the month or can’t use them at the school’s food retail establishments.
Graduate students are particularly hard hit because they often have families themselves.
“We’re growing as a campus but that doesn’t change the students who are coming in,” Knapp said. “There are still hardships, a lot students are struggling financially.”
The main goal of Panther’s Pantry is to help alleviate short-term food insecurity for students. Knapp hopes that’ll be enough to keep students enrolled without having to worry about where they’ll get their next meal.
“It’s a lot easier to concentrate when your stomach is full,” she said.