It Takes a Village: Homelessness and food insecurity need attention

Alec Vandenberg

With a few quick clicks you can send meals across continents through the World Food Programme, and here at USC, a short Lyft ride will take you to Skid Row, where you can join organizations like Share a Meal in passing out food and hygiene kits to thousands of homeless Angelenos.

But homelessness and hunger hit much closer to home than around the world, or across our city.

The most recent data from the Free Application for Federal Student Aid revealed that there are 58,000 homeless students on campuses nationwide. And according to the College and University Food Bank Alliance and other campus-based organizations, nearly half of U.S. college students have trouble putting food on the table. In our own state, about one in 10 of California State University’s 460,000 students are homeless, and one in five do not have steady access to food.

Although USC and most private universities have not released their own data, we know that our campus is not an outlier. While tents line the street just blocks away, within our own gates an untold number of students seek refuge in the 24-hour Leavey Library, couch surf and attempt to make do without a place to return home. And the recent expansion of USC’s Virtual Food Pantry, which provides $25 Trader Joe’s gift cards to food insecure students, reflects a persistent, if not growing, need for greater food affordability and accessibility.

With rising tuition and costs of living in Los Angeles, it’s never been harder to put food on the table and to find keys to a home. Zumper, a housing rental website, noted in 2015 that the average rent increased by over 15 percent in the area surrounding USC between 2006 and 2013, and Rentcafe lists 90007, USC’s regional ZIP code, as the second-most expensive ZIP code for rentals in Los Angeles County in 2015. And as USC’s student body continues to diversify economically, these financial strains will only grow larger. In fact, among the top 25 private universities, USC enrolls disproportionately more low-income students, with 23 percent of Trojans eligible for Pell grants.

And although USC Village has made headway in alleviating the burden of housing on some students, new and expensive restaurants, which do not accept dining or discretionary dollars, exclude many socioeconomic demographics of students.

The 2013 National College Health Assessment found about one-third of U.S. college students struggling to function over the course of a year due to depression, and almost half of participants reported feeling overwhelming anxiety. Psychologists, counselors, administrators, parents and students often pore over studies such as these, isolating competitiveness, student loans and other factors as those which contribute to this epidemic of anxiety and depression. But how often do we consider the physiological and psychological toll of going to class on an empty stomach and ending the day without a home?

In fact, several studies link students grappling with food insecurity to higher likelihoods of experiencing stress, lower grade point averages and almost a 10 percent reduction in the likelihood of graduating.

Admissions brochures emphasize how the college experience facilitates students’ ability to thrive, but these rose-tinted glasses fall flat when it becomes a daily struggle to simply survive for many students. In light of increasing anxiety, competitiveness and financial burdens before and after college, the least the University can do for students is provide them with a safety net to ensure that no one goes hungry and everyone can return to a home at night.

Ensuring that basic needs are met should not be a foreign concept to schools. While public schools offer free or subsidized lunches to students, over 100 universities operate food pantries and many, such as USC, provide voucher programs. And though USC recently launched the USC Initiative to Eliminate Homelessness, emergency housing, food subsidies and Food Stamp navigators, for example, represent bold and desperately needed programs and policies to alleviate what amounts to a campus and national crisis.

With these issues emerging out of the shadows and into the light, the impetus falls on us, students, to guarantee housing and food not only as a privilege, but also as a right.

Alec Vandenberg is a sophomore majoring in public policy. His column,“It Takes a Village,” runs every other Monday.