Students Back Rep. Vargas Bill to Establish Hunger-Free College Campuses

State Rep. Andy X. Vargas. (Courtesy photograph.)

College students who have faced food shortages asked legislators to approve a bill filed by state Rep. Andy X. Vargas to establish a Hunger-Free Campus Initiative, backed by grants.

Vargas, who filed the bill with Rep. Mindy Domb and Senate President Emerita Harriette Chandler, said 37% of public college and university students in Massachusetts are food insecure. He urged his colleagues to think of food insecurity as an “infrastructure problem.”

“It’s a systems-level problem, a logistical problem that we can solve, and this bill lays the groundwork for that,” the Haverhill Democrat said.

One student would fill his backpack to the brim when he could borrow someone else’s account to access the dining hall, The Open Door advocacy director Sarah Grow told lawmakers Thursday. He’d freeze the haul to have meals for later but would worry about getting caught or that other students would catch a whiff of all the food in his bag.

“Living on a tight budget is not the same as having absolutely no food or making those pretzels last a whole day or stealing your roommate’s food or being afraid that your classmates will smell your backpack,” Grow said. “Please support the hunger-free campus initiative so that students can get back to the job of focusing on their education and not where their next meal is coming from.”

Grow was among a number of advocates to pitch the Higher Education Committee on legislation that would direct the Department of Higher Education to establish a Hunger-Free Campus Initiative and dedicate an office to supporting the 29 public higher education campuses as they work to address their students’ food needs.

Under the bill, the higher education commissioner would administer grants to schools that have been designated as a “Hunger-Free Campus.”

To earn that label, schools would have to complete five initiatives each academic year — designating a staff member as Hunger-Free Campus Coordinator; establishing a Hunger-Free Campus Task Force to determine the campus’ priority activities, with at least two student members who have experienced food insecurity; conducting an annual hunger awareness activity; assessing the need to provide access to on-campus food distribution; and notifying students who receive needs-based financial aid “of their potential eligibility to receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children benefits and other federal and state nutrition benefits available to said student or dependents.”

Student supporters of the bill described obtaining assistance in learning about and applying for food benefits as a key need.

The bill is backed by the Hunger Free Campus Coalition, which formed in 2019 to address food insecurity among high-need populations at state colleges and universities in Massachusetts. Nearby coalition members include Middlesex Community College and North Shore Community College.

Testimony on the bill came one day after lawmakers sent Gov. Charlie Baker a separate piece of legislation that aims to boost access to free school meals for K-12 students.

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