On a busy day, as many as 300 students, faculty and staff at Manchester Community College will visit the school's food pantry to help make ends meet with free groceries.
It's one of about a half-dozen such programs at Connecticut's state-run community colleges. They have sprung up in recent years to help address what's become a growing problem of food insecurity, an issue Connecticut lawmakers are hoping to get a better handle on.
"It is a completely different day and age. Our students are dealing with more than any other generation before had to deal with. Every year, our number of visits and the amount of food that we go through is growing exponentially because of the need," said T.J. Barber, director of student activities at Manchester Community College, where he often works with homeless students living in shelters or tents, refugees, or people escaping domestic violence.
Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont recently signed legislation that requires the University of Connecticut Board of Trustees and the Board of Regents for Higher Education, which oversees the community colleges and state universities, to compile data in October on the number of students who don't have enough money for consistent access to healthy food.
If a school operates a food pantry or allows an operation on campus, such as the mobile food pantry that visits Three Rivers Community College in Norwich the fourth Tuesday of every month, state officials want to know the number of students served and the number of pounds of food distributed.
The legislation also requires schools' food policies to be studied, such as the suspension of meal plans when a student's tuition is not paid and the availability of food during holidays and vacation periods. Each board is expected to provide a report to the General Assembly by Feb. 1, 2020.
"This study has the potential to improve educational outcomes for students and consequently to improve their employment opportunities and thus positively impact the cyclical nature of poverty," predicted the Connecticut Food Bank, in written testimony provided to state legislators earlier this year.
Earlier this month, Connecticut U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy and U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes, both Democrats, introduced federal legislation that would create a uniform standard for the U.S. Department of Education to collect data on food and housing insecurity on college campuses in order to better understand the scope of the problem nationally.
Students across the U.S. are struggling with hunger and food insecurity, the group noted, referencing a recent Government Accountability Office report that reviewed more than 30 studies of food insecurity in college. In nearly two dozen of those studies, more than 30% of students did not have consistent access to food.
Barber already knows the need is great at his college. Demand at Cougar Pantry at Manchester Community College has grown from 108 visits in the spring of 2016 to roughly 27,000 visits between Sept. 1, 2018 and June 30, 2019. At Middlesex Community College in Middletown, the number of unduplicated students served by the Magic Food Bus, the school's food pantry, increased by 68% during the 2018-19 academic year.
He expects the demand will increase if a proposed rule takes effect that changes how states are allowed to administer Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits. The proposed change is expected to disqualify 11,000 Connecticut residents from receiving food assistance.
Under the revised rule, recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits would no longer be deemed automatically eligible.
Mark Ojakian, president of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system, sent a letter this month to the secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, expressing his "grave concern" about the proposed changes and urging the federal government to reverse course. While the impact of the potential rules change is still being studied, initial projections show dozens or possibly hundreds of CSCU students could lose SNAP benefits.
"The unfortunate reality is that food insecurity is a large and growing problem on CSCU campuses," he said, noting how many of the state's community college students are the first in their family to attend college and must work one or more jobs while attending classes.
Many also have children of their own, he added.
Gordon Plouffe is an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer who runs the Cougar Pantry, which operates five to six days a week, year round. It relies on revenue from a student activity fee and charitable donations, including large donations of food from grocery stores and regional food banks.
The pantry honors the concept of "food sovereignty," the right to have healthy and culturally appropriate food, Plouffe said, and has three rules: Don't go to class hungry, don't go home hungry and don't let the people at home go hungry.
"Sometimes it's powerful enough to bring our students to tears," he said, adding how members of the college's community don't have to prove they're hungry.
"There's no dignity in that," he said.
Plouffe, legally disabled, recalled having to ask his classmates for help when he was a student at Manchester Community College.
"I was in class and I had to say, ‘Excuse me, there's a grown man in the room with no lunch money,'" he said. "What I found is the MCC community literally cared about me and didn't make me repeat myself."