GRCC tapped for national project to tackle student food and housing insecurity

A national effort to tackle food and housing insecurity among college students has selected Grand Rapids Community College as one of its first partners.

GRCC is one of 27 U.S. colleges picked after an intense competition for the inaugural cohort of Hope4College, an initiative by the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice.

The effort is funded, in part, by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the ECMC Foundation. The member schools will work individually and together to build and strengthen support systems that meet students’ basic needs.

Nearly three in five students experience housing or food insecurity — and the problem is more common among those attending two-year colleges, according to the center.

“Without these basic needs met, students struggle to learn, achieve, and graduate,” Sara Goldrick-Rab, the center’s founder and CEO, told a U.S. House of Representatives committee on Sept. 8. “They fall deeply into debt, often leaving college without degrees needed to repay it.”

Strategic plan

Addressing students’ basic needs is part of GRCC’s strategic plan, and the school already has many measures in place, including a student food pantry, a Student Emergency Assistance Fund, and a “Get Help” webpage that connects students with campus and community resources.

The pantry, run by the Student Life and Conduct office, saw 186 visits from fall 2018 to summer 2019. Lina Blair, director of Student Life, saw an immediate increase in requests for help when the pandemic hit.

“Many college students were struggling prior to the coronavirus crisis, especially those balancing school with work and families,” Blair says. “We care deeply about our students and wanted to make sure we could help.”

Blair’s office began organizing weekly food pickups by car in March 2020 and worked with community partners such as the Heart of West Michigan United Way, Feeding America West Michigan, Meijer, Plainsong Farm, and Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority’s Theta Chi Omega chapter to put more food, plus hygiene and child-care supplies, on pantry shelves. The support allowed the pantry to provide more than 2,000 packages to students since the pandemic struck.

Increased assistance

The Student Emergency Assistance Fund, created in 2009 largely with employee donations, also saw an increase in need during COVID-19. The fund, which helps students facing emergencies such as losing their job, homelessness, or having their utilities shut off, distributed $6,557 in 2018-19. After the pandemic hit, almost $36,000 was disbursed.

The “Get Help” webpage lists community resources that can help students address not only food and housing insecurity, but mental health and domestic violence issues.
Colleges participating in the Hope4College effort will be able to share research and ideas, sharing best practices and offering support.

Mott Community College and the University of Michigan-Dearborn are the only other Michigan colleges included in the program.

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Read more articles by Shandra Martinez.