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Campus food banks say they’re in high demand as college food insecurity continues to rise

  • By Rebecca Reese/WESA
Food is prepared for delivery to Pittsburgh residents during a distribution event on the North Shore on April 24, 2020.

Katie Blackley / WESA

Food is prepared for delivery to Pittsburgh residents during a distribution event on the North Shore on April 24, 2020.

(Pittsburgh) — Last year, the COVID-19 pandemic shocked universities. Nearly every student in the Pittsburgh area left campus housing to transition to remote learning. But after a few years in which food insecurity among students steadily increased, the pandemic put more than just the students’ college experience in jeopardy.

According to a 2018 study by Temple University, nearly half of students experience food insecurity at some point in their college careers. The research found college hunger contributes to poorer academic performance and affects physical and mental health.

Leaders of local campus food banks said the pandemic likely exacerbated the number of needy students. Professor Heather Starr Fiedler, who oversees Point Park University’s Pioneer Pantry, said she saw the need immediately.

“When the pandemic first happened, we saw our numbers for the food pantry quadruple,” Fiedler said.

Phyllis Johnson, manager of pantry operations at the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, said that though some on-campus pantries saw an increase in usage, others saw a steep decline.

“Most of them have seen a decrease because the students had online classes,” Johnson said. “So [the students] were accessing more of the food pantries that were in their local community.”

Pittsburgh food banks have had to get creative in order to provide for students. The Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank makes sure to notify students of distributions and helps them apply for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or, SNAP, benefits.

Carnegie Mellon University’s pantry, meanwhile, allows students a “designated shopper” who can pick up food in their place.

“We really try to make ends meet for those students who are struggling to physically make it to our facility,” said Zachary Miller, who manages operations at the CMU Pantry.

Most Pittsburgh pantries, on- or off-campus, are looking to expand their efforts for students in the near future. Many are planning to keep extended hours and delivery services put in place for the pandemic. Most students will return to in-person learning in the fall semester, but most campus pantry managers predict food insecurity resulting from the pandemic will likely persist.

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