While the ramen noodle-fueled college student has grown into a cliche, nearly one in three higher-ed students face food insecurity. The Senate Agriculture Committee advanced legislation Wednesday seeking to change that.
The bill (SB 1916), filed by Miami-Dade Democratic Sen. Annette Taddeo, would establish the Hunger-Free Campus Act to address hunger on college campuses. The bill cleared its first committee in a unanimous vote.
According to school reporting, 40% of students at Miami Dade College, 47% of students at Florida Atlantic University, 29% of students at the University of South Florida and more than 20% of students at the University of Florida struggle with hunger and food insecurity, Taddeo said.
“I’ve been there,” Taddeo said. “As a state that prides ourselves on being a higher education leader, it’s on all of us to make sure that students don’t go hungry.”
The legislation would designate qualified colleges or universities as “Hunger-Free Campuses” in order to provide schools access to a grant system created under the proposal. The bill would enable the Agriculture Commissioner to award grants to educational institutions that have one or more campuses designated as a Hunger-Free Campus.
To qualify for the grant program, schools must show efforts to address food insecurity on their campuses. Criteria include establishing a hunger task force and hosting an activity or event during Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week. The school also will have to provide options for students to use Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits on campus or provide information on where SNAP can be used in the surrounding area.
Qualifying criteria also include designating a staff member to assist students with enrollment in SNAP, a note Taddeo said was vital to the program.
“I want to highlight this is a really important part of this bill because what we have seen in the studies is that it is very difficult for many students to fill out this form, and to really figure out the entire process of getting their ability to get SNAP,” Taddeo said. “Where they have done it, they have really been able to increase the number of students that will get … SNAP benefits that they deserve.”
Schools looking to enter the grant program also are required to build a physical food pantry on campus or set up a separate, stigma-free process to provide food at no cost. That could include partnering with a local food bank, the bill states. It will also require schools to conduct annual surveys on student hunger.
Grants will be prioritized for institutions with the highest percentages of eligible Pell Grant recipients. These grants must be used for an approved purpose related to food insecurity on campus.
The committee received more than 45 testimonials from students of colleges and universities across the state. Elizabeth Haynes, a Florida State University student, expressed her support for the legislation at Wednesday’s hearing.
“Students absolutely should not go throughout their education hungry,” Haynes said. “Many students face stressors already — some of these being from various socio-economic backgrounds, the cost of education rising and worrying about the pandemic — and hunger absolutely should not be among the stressors.”
The bill also led to some reflection from legislators on their own college experiences, with Sen. Darryl Rouson recalling his choice to go to Xavier University of Louisiana. Rouson’s grandmother lived close by, providing him access to a stable source of meals.
“I had a grandmother there, and I knew I could get a meal on the weekends and get some good gumbo, and that impressed me and helped me choose which college I was going to,” Rouson said.
Taddeo also shared her experience of hunger in college, having to prioritize foods with longer shelf lives to make sure she’d be able to eat.
“This is very personal to me. I actually worked myself through college working as a waitress and I remember toward the end of every month when rent was due I would be out of money,” Taddeo said. “I remember buying boxes of macaroni and cheese or rice and beans because it goes a long way and it fills your tummy up, even if it wasn’t the healthiest of meals. But I was truly counting pennies.”
The bill is now headed to its second of three panels, the Senate Education Committee. Rep. Susan Valdes is sponsoring the House version of the bill (HB 1407), which is awaiting a hearing by its first committee.