Rep. Hayes, Sen. Murphy introduce legislation to combat college hunger

Hartford Courant

hris Murphy and Jahana Hayes have spent time on college campuses and heard from students firsthand that they struggle to both feed themselves and pay tuition.

About 100 students at UConn's Waterbury campus spoke to Hayes at a recent roundtable about the problem, she said.

Seeking a solution, Hayes, who represents Connecticut's 5th Congressional District, and Murphy, the state's junior U.S. senator, have each introduced the Closing the College Hunger Gap Act in their respective houses of Congress.

The bill would require institutions of higher education to collect and publish data about students' food and housing insecurity, as defined by the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Housing and Urban Development.

"You can't manage a problem that you have not yet measured," Hayes said.

The bill would add questions about food and housing to the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, a government-run survey of how college students pay for their education.

A 2017 Kresge Foundation Study estimated 56 percent of community college students are food insecure and 14 percent are housing insecure. Students who struggle to meet their basic needs are likely to drop out, the study says. More than 30 percent of college students do not know where they will get their next meal, according to a Government Accountability Office report from January.

Data collection will show not only where college students are most food insecure but also where colleges are already working to help students in need, and those schools could provide examples to follow, Murphy said.

Middlesex Community College in Middletown has a mobile food pantry called the Magic Food Bus, run by students and volunteers. The pantry "provides non-perishable food items, toiletries, and other items" to students and staff, according to the college's website. It is open Monday through Friday during the academic year and Wednesdays during the summer.

The Magic Food Bus distributed 7,099 units of food to 1,525 students and their families during the 2018-2019 academic year, a 60 percent increase from 2017-2018, said Trenton Wright, Middlesex's coordinator of institutional advancement. The program does not receive any funds from the CSCU system, and further demand could make it difficult to continue to meet students' needs, Wright said.

Naugatuck Valley Community College, from which Hayes has an associate's degree, opened its own food pantry in February 2018. More than 2,000 students had visited the pantry by November, and a United Way grant supported the pantry for the 2018-2019 academic year, according to a press release on the school's website. Tunxis and Norwalk community colleges also have food pantries for students, faculty and staff.

"Our community colleges are recognizing [food insecurity] as an issue, but some of the bigger schools in Connecticut haven't taken that leap," Murphy said.

One four-year school that is addressing the problem is UConn, which introduced temporary "pop-up food closets" for students in November 2018 through a student organization called UConn Access to Food Effort (UCAFE).

Some students have told Hayes they choose not to sign up for a campus meal plan because it's too expensive, she said.

"They can't just be supported with charitable organizations, churches and community groups," Hayes said. "These kids are already working and doing everything they can, and this should not be an issue they have to worry about."

Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., introduced a bill last year "to make institutions of higher education eligible for assistance for community food projects," according to Congress.gov. The bill did not move past being referred to two House committees. Murphy and Hayes both said they believe their legislation has a higher chance of success in this Congress.

The Higher Education Authorization Act, an overarching higher education law that Congress renews every few years, is up for hearings in the Republican-controlled Senate. It could pass with parts of the Closing the College Hunger Gap Act included, Murphysaid, and this is the "best chance" of passing a bill that might be hard to pass on its own.

Hayes has a different view of the bill's prospects in the House, controlled by Democrats as of January. The bill has been referred to the House Committee on Education and Labor, of which Hayes is a member. The current Congress see education as an investment in the nation's future, and the committee has held hearings for several bills so far, she said.

"This has been a very active committee, and these are things I really believe we will be able to push through the Senate," Hayes said.