Fueling students, one meal at a time

Through the Eagle Breakfast program at Ozarks Technical Community College (Missouri), students are invited grab a sandwich or other breakfast item for free every morning. (Photo: OTC)

Combatting food insecurity on campus requires collaboration and ingenuity. Some colleges are going beyond the standard food pantry to ensure students have better access to the resources they need to focus and succeed.

Food pantries have evolved at many two-year campuses from just a closet where donations are shelved, to robust partnerships with community organizations to provide food (even fresh produce) and other essentials, with some pantries now modeled to look like mini grocery stores. And colleges are becoming more innovative in how they provide food, from offering free breakfasts to all students, to installing food lockers so students can pick up orders on their schedule.

Starting the day right

Ozarks Technical Community College (OTC) prides itself on having a “really robust culture of caring,” says Joan Barrett, vice chancellor for student affairs.

“We’ve always tried to create a context where students feel comfortable telling us their needs,” Barrett says.

Nearly half of the students across the Missouri college’s six campuses are food insecure. In late 2019, the idea was born to provide students with a free meal — only to be halted by Covid. But the pandemic also meant many in-person student celebrations – such as an annual picnic – were canceled. That freed up money in the budget to pilot a free breakfast program. The college also used federal emergency funding, such as CARES and HEERF dollars, to pay for the program.

The Eagle Breakfast program launched in spring 2021 on the main campus in Springfield. Every morning, for one hour, students can visit the campus café to pick up a breakfast item, such as a breakfast sandwich or cereal and fruit, at no cost. They just have to swipe their student ID.

To make sure the program reaches the most students, OTC staff researched when there is the biggest spike of students on campus and scheduled the free breakfast hour at that time. They also decided to open it to all students so no one has to prove they are in need.

“We said, ‘Mornings are hard, breakfasts are easy,’” Barrett says.

The program worked so well during the spring semester that OTC Chancellor Hal Higdon extended the breakfast program to all campuses starting in fall 2021.

Getting results

During the 2022-23 academic year, 3,948 students took advantage of Eagle Breakfast, which was 802 more students than the previous year.

Besides being the kind thing to do, offering free breakfast has had benefits. OTC has gathered data through the student ID swipes.

The free student breakfast menu at OTC.

Students who received Eagle Breakfast meals in 2022-23 were more successful in the classroom: 90% of Eagle Breakfast participants completed their classes compared to 83% of other OTC students. And 82% of Eagle Breakfast participants achieved a “C” or better in all their courses compared to 74% of other OTC students.

Barrett says free breakfast may not be the only reason these students are doing better, “but it helps.”

And, anecdotally, engagement is up. OTC is a commuter campus, but when students stop for breakfast, they have more of an opportunity to engage with each other and with staff.

Though the federal emergency funds aren’t available anymore, OTC leaders have decided to support Eagle Breakfast institutionally. Besides breakfast, the college also works with two community partners to provide mobile food pantries.

Partnering on the pantry and more

For Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA), collaboration has been vital to ensuring students don’t go hungry.

The college used to rely on food donations from staff, faculty and community members. But when the pandemic hit, the need went up while “we didn’t have as much staff power,” says LaTonia White, NOVA’s director of financial stability and advocacy.

The college began partnering with the Capital Area Food Bank (CAFB). The food bank provided shelving, new refrigerators and food delivery services. When the pantries run low, White places an order with CAFB to refill the shelves.

All NOVA students can access the food pantries with their student IDs. Students also can request items if they have specific dietary needs, and White makes sure some international foods are stocked. In addition, the pantries are stocked with hygiene items, baby products, school supplies and more.

In 2023, there have been more 1,000 visits to the pantry across the college’s six campuses. Some come to grab a quick snack, while others stock up on groceries for the week. To date, CAFB has invested more than $30,000 in stocking NOVA’s pantries and delivered more than 15,000 pounds of food.

Hot meals

But CAFB’s investment doesn’t stop there. The organization also provides funding toward hot meal grants, which were awarded to 100 students this fall. Those students received money on their NOVACard that they can use to buy food at campus dining locations and vending machines. It averages out to about $12 a day for a semester.

The CAFB funding isn’t guaranteed, though. Because the program is important, NOVA is prepared to keep the program going with institutional funds.

“Students have no need to ever go hungry,” White says.

DISHing out support

Bunker Hill Community College (BHCC) knows that students’ lives are busy and visiting a food pantry during “office hours” isn’t always possible. That’s why they’ve installed food lockers that are accessible after hours.

The Massachusetts college serves about 11,000 students, more than 80% of whom are Pell-eligible.

“They’re struggling to make ends meet,” says Will Cribby, assistant dean of students.

The college’s DISH food pantry is open to all BHCC students, staff and faculty, regardless of their income level or background. (DISH stands for Deliver Information, Sustenance and Health.) BHCC keeps food stocked with help from community partners, like the Greater Boston Food Bank.

Through DISH, BHCC distributed more than 55,000 pounds of food last year.

There are two options for using DISH. First, anyone can stop by to get grab-and-go items during certain hours without having to swipe an ID.

“That’s been a big help to DACA students,” Cribby says, because they don’t feel they’re being questioned or documented.

Automated lockers

The BHCC community also can participate in the Pantry Pick-Up Program. Participants register online and get a certain amount of “points” each month that they can use for food or hygiene or baby items, which they order online.  

BHCC uses a food pantry software program to make ordering easy. The software allows users to choose the date and time they want to pick up their items. The orders are then placed in automated lockers – like Amazon lockers – for easy pickup. The college even has refrigerated lockers to keep food from spoiling.

Other colleges have also installed similar pantry food lockers, including Maryland’s Community College of Baltimore County, Frederick Community College and Montgomery College.

Destigmatizing food insecurity

About 10% to 15% of BHCC students regularly use DISH. Cribby says there’s still a stigma around food insecurity, and many students see visiting a food pantry as a “last resort.”

But the college is working to destigmatize food insecurity. At DISH, student employees are often “the face of the pantry,” Cribby says, making it a “student-friendly space.”

And, because BHCC serves a diverse and international community, staff ensure international specialty items are available when possible.

“No one’s getting a bag of dented cans,” Cribby says. “We focus on what it is our students need – not what we have lying around.”

Food insecurity is an important issue for BHCC leadership. President Pam Eddinger testified in September at a hearing of the state legislature’s Joint Committee on Higher Education on behalf of legislation that would combat food insecurity on college campuses across the state. 

“Food insecurity goes beyond any one college and any one food pantry — with an estimated 70,000 food insecure community college students in our commonwealth according to the most recent data, we need comprehensive, state-wide solutions,” Eddinger said.

About the Author

Tabitha Whissemore
Tabitha Whissemore is a contributor to Community College Daily and managing editor of AACC's Community College Journal.