Higher education advocates are joining with a group fighting hunger to support a bill in the Oregon Legislature aimed at helping relieve food and housing insecurity for students.
The Oregon Student Association, Oregon Community College Association and Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon are pushing lawmakers to pass House Bill 2835, also known as the Benefits Navigator Bill.
The Oregon Student Association said the Oregon Council of Presidents also played a key role in supporting the legislation.
That bill would create funding for a full-time position at every community college and public university for a staff member who could connect students to benefits, such as SNAP, often informally called food stamps, and also housing assistance.
The proposed legislation is the result of months of discussions with students and others in campus communities to address needs among college students.
Venus Barnes with Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon said the solution — HB 2835 — came out of a “yearlong engagement process with students” all over the state.
“We held a series of listening circles to ask students about their experiences with campus hunger and what solutions they saw that could help,” Barnes said in a statement. “This bill is a product of that conversation.”
In January and February 2020, Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon, with support from the Oregon Student Association, conducted a series of on-campus listening sessions and online surveys — hearing from nearly 200 students across 11 public Oregon colleges and universities.
About 70% of those students said they had experienced food insecurity in the last 12 months, according to Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon. Twenty percent of those students said they had experienced housing insecurity in the same time frame.
“Students [are] worrying about their money running out before rent is due, having to skip meals, or not being able to focus in class because of hunger, or having to skip class because they’re having to work extra shifts,” a student from Portland Community College said in a response to the survey.
“What we want from the administrators and the legislators is that they listen and understand us and take action,” said a student from Western Oregon University in one of the listening sessions.
Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon, the Oregon Students Association and the Oregon Community College Association have partnered for “Hunger-Free Campuses,” a campaign focused on advocating for state-level changes that address student needs insecurities.
A benefits navigator position has existed at Oregon State University as a pilot program for the past two academic years, the Oregon Student Association said in a news release.
Between 2018 and 2020, that position at Oregon State was responsible for bringing over $875,000 dollars in SNAP benefits and other resources to students, the Oregon Student Association said.
“Our focus is on making sure legislators understand that, at very little cost to Oregon, we can make a lasting impact on student success while bringing more federal dollars into the state,” said Miguel Arellano Sanchez, OSU’s basic needs navigator, in the news release. “This bill is a win-win and we really can’t afford not to implement it if we want our college students to be able to succeed during this pandemic.”
Supporters of the bill say student need-based insecurities have always been around, but the pandemic has only heightened them.
“Campus Hunger was already a crisis before COVID-19 and the ensuing economic downturn. Students can’t succeed in school and earn valuable degrees when they’re struggling to keep a roof over their head or find their next meal,” Odalis Aguilar Aguilar, an Oregon Students Association board member and an official with the University of Oregon’s student government, said in a statement. “What we hope legislators understand is that if Oregon’s economy is going to recover from the pandemic, that just can’t be done without addressing statewide campus hunger this session.”