Just blocks from the University of Washington, a line of people shuffle toward a food pantry, awaiting handouts such as milk and bread.
For years, the small University District pantry has offered help to the working poor and single parents in this neighborhood of campus rentals. Now rising food prices are bringing another group: Struggling college students.
“Right now, with things the way they are, a lot of students just can’t afford to eat,” said Terry Capleton, who started a Facebook group called “I Ain’t Afraid to be on Food Stamps” when he was a student at Benedict College in South Carolina.
Some of the students are working their way through college with grants, loans and part-time jobs. Others are just reluctant to ask parents for more money.
“More and more, it’s just the typical traditional student, about 18 to 22, that’s feeling this crunch,” said Larry Brickner-Wood, director of the Cornucopia Food Pantry at the University of New Hampshire.
“There’s definitely been an increase in usage and demand. We’re seeing more and more students that have never used the pantry before.”
In the past year, the price of groceries has jumped nearly 5 percent, the highest increase in nearly two decades. The cost of some staples has shot up by more than 30 percent.
At the University District pantry in Seattle, demand has risen roughly 25 percent this year. About 150 students visit each week during the school year.
Membership in Capleton’s Facebook group has steadily climbed, too, and sparked other online groups with names such as “I’m in College and I got on Food Stamps.”
“A lot of students can’t call their mom every day to ask for that extra fifty dollars,” said Capleton, 24. “They’re on their own.”
Qualifying for aid at community food banks is usually easy. Most of the charities just require users to show identification proving they live in the area.
“It’s the highest I’ve ever seen,” said Jerry Mason, the school’s director of student life. “Our assumption is it’s because of the high price of food.”
In response to demand, the school doubled the pantry’s $3,000 annual budget.
Food stamps are distributed through a Department of Agriculture program administered by the states. But the agency does not track whether applicants are enrolled in college, so the number of students is unknown.
Students generally are eligible for food stamps if they qualify for a state or federally funded work-study program; work at least 20 hours per week; have a child under the age of 12; or are taking employer-sponsored job training classes.
Deirdre Wilson, a junior at Francis Marion University in Florence, S.C., applied for food stamps in November because her paycheck from a work-study job didn’t stretch far enough to cover her expanding grocery bill.
“Before, when I lived in the dorms, I was on the meal plan,” the 20-year-old said. “Now that I’m in the apartment, I have to pay for food, and I have to pay my cell phone bill. I don’t make enough to pay for both.”
John Camp, lead analyst for Washington state’s food stamp program, said the requirements for assistance disqualify many students and dissuade others from applying. People ages 18 to 25 make up roughly 8 percent of the state’s food stamp users.
In New Hampshire, some students are reluctant to apply for government aid.
“There is a stereotype that well, if they’re in college, they can afford to eat,” said Brickner-Wood, the food pantry director. “But there are some students who have hardly any disposable income, and because of that, the food budget suffers. They either eat really badly, or they just don’t eat enough.”
Standing outside a campus market, University of Washington junior Doug McManaway wonders how he will afford to pay for groceries through the summer term.
“I’m already really poor and on a really tight budget,” he said. “I have to pay rent, and after that there isn’t much left over.”
With just $100 left to last him through the end of the month, the 20-year-old said a food bank might be his best option.
“It kind of grosses me out,” McManaway said. “But if my parents say, ‘No, we’re not going to give you any more money,’ it may be a last resort.”
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