Campuses try to alleviate student, staff inflation woes

Kayla Williams, a sophomore at Sam Houston State University, chose paying her tuition over buying groceries last year. The cost of both had gone up, but as a student supporting herself through college, staying enrolled seemed more important. She scrambled to work as many hours as possible as an information desk assistant for the campus student center, but it wasn’t enough to meet all her needs.

“It’s either I pay my tuition … or I save the money to buy me something to eat,” she said. “It got bad—to the point where I would just go days without eating.”

Williams later discovered the campus food pantry, where she now works. Sam Houston State and other campuses across the country are steeling themselves to support many more students like Williams who are financially burdened by rampant inflation—the highest inflation rate in 40 years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics—and the rising costs of food and other day-to-day essentials.

As many colleges and universities take belt-tightening measures and raise tuition as their own institutional expenses rise, some are also trying to ease the financial struggles of students, faculty and staff members.

Kathleen Gilbert, director of the food pantry at Sam Houston State, said demand has already skyrocketed. About 25 to 50 students typically visit the pantry on a regular basis during the summer term. But at least 100 students have come for food so far, and lately community members are coming in, too. In July alone, 51 members of the surrounding community requested prepackaged grocery boxes, a service the pantry started offering during the pandemic.

At the same time, the pantry, which runs on donations, has had less money coming in, and the cost of some of the foods Gilbert wants to buy for students have increased. For example, it’s now harder to continue offering meat and gluten-free options, products that can be pricey even in ordinary times.

“We really try to do our best to really provide fresh produce, milk, eggs, bread, dairy,” she said. “And with that increase in price, that’s affecting us. Whereas I would typically be able to buy 100 loaves of bread, I’m really having to budget and say, ‘OK, well, now I can only get 60.’”

Nonetheless, she’s promoting the pantry more on social media and trying to prepare for the “worst-case scenario,” which could mean feeding up to 500 students on a limited budget this coming fall. She’s also busy trying to solicit donations and build new community partnerships to find new ways to get food. For example, she’s working with a local community garden to offer their excess produce to students.

Sam Houston State also plans to introduce a new mobile pantry van to deliver food directly to students’ dorms. The idea for the van was born after a major ice storm hit Texas last winter, forcing students and community members to travel to the pantry in inclement weather. Gilbert also hopes the van will reach more students in this time of heightened need. She noted that the student housing facility farthest from campus is about two miles away.

“Especially today with inflation, every gallon of gas counts,” she said.

Campus leaders at Southwest Tennessee Community College are also trying to cut gas costs for students and faculty and staff members. The college is offering all classes and services remotely on Fridays, from May 27 through Aug. 12, so students and employees can save on commuting costs at least one day per week.

Cory Major, vice president of student affairs at Southwest Tennessee, said it was critical to address rising expenses on a campus where almost half of the student body is eligible for the Pell Grant, federal financial aid for low-income students. The state has Tennessee Promise, tuition-free scholarship program for community college students, and a similar program focused on adult learners called Tennessee Reconnect, but he still finds students hampered by daily living expenses that keep going up.

The hope was to “help them at the gas pump,” Major said. “And that would help them with other expenses as well, because at that same time, rent was increasing, food prices were increasing.”

He added that campus leaders are considering extending “virtual Fridays” into the fall term after “incredibly, overwhelmingly positive” feedback from students and employees. The college surveyed 463 students, faculty and staff members about the remote days, and while some…

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