College students struggling with food insecurity urge federal government for help

By Meerah Powell (OPB)
Nov. 27, 2020 2 p.m.

This past summer, Antonia McSwain, a student at Portland Community College, said she had to spend all of the money she had saved for a year and a half to support her family.

“Those students’ stories aren’t necessarily told,” McSwain said. “The realities of all college students need to be recognized if there is a stimulus package passed.”


McSwain came together Wednesday with U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Beaverton, and local organizations including the Oregon Food Bank, to advocate passage of a COVID-19 relief bill from the federal government. They argued it’s especially critical ahead of the holiday season when issues like food insecurity become more apparent for all communities, including less obvious groups like college students.

Students walk across Portland Community College's Southeast campus on a rainy day in December 2015.

Students walk across Portland Community College's Southeast campus on a rainy day in December 2015.

Bryan M. Vance / OPB

McSwain said she is lucky to be living at home with her parents while attending classes remotely at PCC, and to still have a job. But she still struggles.

“I have to pay my bills that I have acquired as a young adult. I have to buy my food,” McSwain said. “It’s hard.”

Rep. Bonamici said she and other members of Congress are demanding that the U.S. Senate work immediately to pass a COVID-19 relief bill.

“Oregonians and people across the country are facing these significant challenges and are rightfully demanding that Congress take action,” Bonamici said.

Bonamici said that Congress had initially passed a bill in May, extending unemployment and other benefits, but it still awaits action by the Senate.

“With so many people in need here in Northwest Oregon, across our state and across our country, it’s truly unconscionable that the Senate has not taken action … nor have they passed a bill to send over to the House,” she said. “They have done nothing since last spring and the pandemic as we know is not just still here, it is surging.”

Related: Thousands of students opt for coronavirus tests before holiday travel

Bonamici noted bills that had passed earlier including the CARES Act in the spring.

“That helped initially, but the pandemic is still here, and we need more, and we know we need more,” she said.

For months, Democratic leaders in the U.S. House have at times worked directly with the Trump Administration and Republicans in the U.S. Senate, but the two sides have remained far apart on an additional spending package, according to NPR and other national news outlets. Democrats have pushed for as much as $2 trillion in spending, while Republicans have favored a bill that’s a fraction of that size.

While the partisan debate continues in Washington, D.C., Oregonians who were lower-income or struggling in some way before the pandemic, are struggling even more now, multiple speakers said Wednesday.

McSwain at PCC points to her peers who may be fortunate to attend classes remotely in the pandemic, but still hold multiple jobs working directly with the public.

“They have to be a breadwinner and have to support the household, and yet you don’t see them considered in the first stimulus package,” McSwain said. “All of us as college students have different realities, and all of them should be considered because all of us are struggling.”

PCC President Mark Mitsui joined Bonamici and others in the call for a comprehensive relief package, specifically with college students in mind.

“Even before COVID, we saw extremely high rates of housing and food insecurity at Portland Community College,” PCC President Mark Mitsui said. “Two-thirds of our students experienced either housing or food insecurity. Almost 20% experienced homelessness, according to Temple University’s survey of our students.”


A report released earlier this year by Portland State University’s Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative found that more than 60% of PSU students surveyed had experienced some form of needs insecurity in the year prior — food or housing insecurity, or a combination.

In a follow-up survey, PSU’s research showed that needs-based insecurities have only worsened during the coronavirus pandemic.

PSU, PCC and Mount Hood Community College held a virtual student housing insecurity summit last week to continue addressing the issue and seeking out solutions.

Mitsui with PCC noted that a national survey conducted by Temple University, illuminated an “equity gap” where students of color experienced needs-based insecurities to a larger extent than white students.

Similarly, PSU’s research showed that Native American students were almost twice as likely as white students to experience homelessness; they also had the highest rates of food insecurity, at more than 66%.

“It’s so difficult to graduate, to study, to make progress if you’re not sure where your next meal is coming from or where you’re going to sleep at night,” Mitsui said.

Mitsui said that community colleges like PCC have some programs to help students in need, and students say they appreciate those — but they’re still living on thin margins.

“A lot of students like myself are one flat tire away from not being able to go to school,” said Emily Williams, the student body president at PCC Sylvania.

Growing up, Williams said, she was constantly displaced. She was also homeless for her first few years of college.

“In the last year, because of COVID, I have experienced a lot of crisis,” but, she said, through being a student at PCC, “unlike so many other people, I have access to resources.”

Williams said: “The solution I see is just finding a combination of resources for people and making sure it’s equitable.”

Speakers also noted that younger students continue to have food insecurity during the pandemic — even though there are resources available.

Whitney Ellersick, who works with the Nutrition Services Department with Portland Public Schools, said that many parents don’t know that school districts are offering free meals to children age 18 and younger.

“Regardless of status, anyone in the community, they don’t have to be enrolled in schools,” Ellersick said. “This is Oregonwide.”

Ellersick said her team at PPS has served more than 2 million meals since March which is only about one-sixth of what it would serve if students were physically in school.

“We know there are definitely families out there who are not being reached,” Ellersick said, or “they think it’s going to take away from somebody else who might need it more, and that’s not the case. This is not a capped benefit. There’s no max.”

While PPS is seeing fewer people, other organizations, like the Oregon Food Bank, are seeing more.

Matt Newell-Ching with the Oregon Food Bank said generally that many local food assistance sites are seeing as many community members in a week as they had before in a month, or even longer.

“Communities are rallying,” Newell-Ching said of the people who have continued to donate to food banks and other mutual aid programs, “but we can’t do it alone. The public health and economic challenges are much too great. … Congress and the president must come together to provide relief for our communities.”

Newell-Ching and others noted that there’s some hope, with various coronavirus vaccines showing promise. But he said there is still a long way to go.

“We can now see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Newell-Ching said, “but, make no mistake that this tunnel is going to be long until we reach that light.”


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