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"It's a positive response to a really challenging situation, but it's not the ultimate solution."
College is filled with plenty of expenses, from tuition to textbooks, but for some financially burdened students, the costs weigh so heavily that paying for food becomes a day-to-day challenge. That challenge was what motivated the administration of George Washington University, one of the country's most expensive private colleges, to create a food bank for students in need of a helping hand.
While most students receive financial aid in some form at GW—a $68,000 a year institution, all costs considered—many still struggle to keep their head above water financially. In a recent interview with NPR, Tim Miller, the university's associate dean of students, opened up about the decision to establish a place where strapped-for-cash students could have access to dietary necessities they might not be able to afford otherwise.
At GW, unlike some major universities, the meal plan doesn't revolve around a buffet-style cafeteria meal system, in which a swipe equals a meal. Rather, because many of the school's students actively intern and work around Washington D.C., their dining plan is a pay-per-meal system that works with a number different spots around the campus and city. While this system allows for a greater scope of options, it also results in a greater likelihood of a student running out of money for food altogether.
According to Miller, a recent survey conducted by the College and University Food Bank Alliance discovered that 48 percent of the students polled had experienced food insecurity at some point in their college careers. The school's own internal survey results were consistent with these findings. So, GW set about creating an anonymous space where students could get access to food without having to disclose their financial situation or even their name.
"One of the concerns for students is anonymity around this, and being able to feel like they can use us without having any judgment," Miller says of this decision.
To access the campus food pantry, which had its soft opening on September 12th, students must simply fill out a form with an email address and GW identification number. On its first day, 21 students requested access to the food pantry; since then, 147 coeds have signed up for the service. Miller says the overwhelmingly positive feedback from students was immediate.
"We had one student who... walked in kind of terrified of not knowing what this was going to be like and was just overjoyed and brought to tears when she walked in and saw it was more like a grocery store than anything else," he says. "The fact that there's an empowering part of this is really something we've heard a lot about from the students who've used it so far."
The school joins over 300 colleges and universities around the country that have established similar resources on their campuses, and Miller says the pantry is just a small step towards making college as a whole more affordable for all. "It's a positive response to a really challenging situation, but it's not the ultimate solution," he says. "How do we manage the cost of education—higher education for all students? I think we're also looking for what that final solution is."