Although Benjamin Franklin was considered radical in 1753 when he founded the Academy of Philadelphia, his vision was practical. Excluding that “an investment in education always pays the best returns,” he understood what we now know: Strengthening Pennsylvania’s economy requires providing high quality, affordable education for our future. workforce. Yet more than a century later, Pennsylvania college students are hanging on by a thread, as their most basic needs – food, shelter and other living expenses – are threatened.
To save Pennsylvania’s public colleges, our lawmakers must prioritize the safety of students’ basic needs. According to a 2019 survey by the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, about one in three students attending four-year colleges in Philadelphia struggled to meet their basic needs. More than half of students enrolled in community college have experienced basic needs insecurity – and the pandemic has only made this alarming problem worse.
Thousands of students across the Commonwealth face the unimaginable choice between paying for textbooks or buying food. When students are asked where their next meal will come from, reaching their full potential can seem inconceivable. Unsurprisingly, many studies have found that food insecure students are more likely to have lower grades and drop out before graduation or certificate than their classmates. When students drop out, they have fewer jobs, earn less money, have difficulty repaying student loans, and may be more dependent on government assistance. Colleges suffer from further declines in enrollment and state investment in higher education is wasted.
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Aware of these consequences, many public colleges in the state have implemented local initiatives to combat food insecurity. Millersville University is working with its nearby church to run a pantry and serve free hot meals to students; Students at Bucks County Community College can receive a $ 50 grocery gift card and help from a case manager to access other resources. The Community College of Allegheny County operates a âCampus Cupboardâ which distributes non-perishable food, household items and sometimes fresh produce from the campus garden to their peers.
These initiatives are essential, but they are not sustainable or sufficient on their own to meet the needs of students. Even before the pandemic dealt a financial blow to public colleges, few had the extra dollars needed to invest in their students. In 2020, Pam Frontino, former associate director of service learning and volunteerism programs at West Chester University, testified before the Pennsylvania House Democratic Policy Committee on some of the challenges she faced in alleviating hunger among children. students. Although the university is very supportive of the pantry, she explained that it cannot provide direct financial assistance, which can significantly help students meet their basic needs.
Understanding the urgency to support students when they return to campus this fall, State Representatives Malcolm Kenyatta (D., Phila.) And Jennifer O’Mara (D., Delaware) and State Senator Carolyn Comitta (D., Chester) introduced the Hunger Free Campuses Act. If passed, it will provide $ 1 million in grants per year to public higher education institutions to fight student hunger. The funding could be used by campuses to create SNAP enrollment opportunities, establish an anti-hunger task force, fund pantries, initiate meal sharing programs, and raise awareness of existing resources on campus.
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The bill – originally drafted by Swipe Out Hunger – has already passed in California, New Jersey, Maryland and Minnesota, providing more than $ 70 million to public colleges to date. Here in Pennsylvania, it has been endorsed by a broad coalition of stakeholders, including Feeding Pennsylvania and Hunger-Free Pennsylvania, who represent Keystone State Food Banks, Dozens of Pantry, Pennsylvania Council of Churches and a number of national and state bodies. organizations.
If Pennsylvania is to strengthen the higher education system and fuel economic growth in the wake of the pandemic, its lawmakers must follow Benjamin Franklin’s vision and join those voices to prioritize the basic needs of students.
We urge the Chairs and Deputy Chairs of Education Committees – State Senator Scott Martin (R., Lancaster), State Senator Lindsey Williams (D., Allegheny), State Representative Curtis Sonney ( R., Erie) and State Representative Mark Longietti (D., Mercer) – to bring this bill up for review to ensure that Pennsylvania students have the resources they need to be successful at the university, contribute to their local communities and strengthen the economy of their state.
Rachel Sumekh is the Founder and CEO of Swipe Out Hunger, where Haley Schusterman is a member of National Advocacy.