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Students Take National Stage to End Hunger on College Campuses

Closing the Hunger Gap conference
Jayna Lennon, Shivani Surati and Gino Fernandes discuss the importance of student leadership and advocacy at the Closing the Hunger Gap conference in downtown Raleigh.

Six NC State students took to the national stage this month to address a crisis impacting college campuses across the country: students are at risk of hunger and homelessness.

Their presentation was an outgrowth of research that a team of students, faculty and staff conducted over the past 18 months into this very real crisis on NC State’s campus. That work resulted in the 2018 NC State Food and Housing Insecurity study, which found that one in seven students on campus had experienced food insecurity in the past 30 days and nearly one in 10 students experienced homelessness during the past 12 months.

In September, the six students presented their recommendations at the national Closing the Hunger Gap conference attended by more than 500 representatives of food banks and other nonprofits. Organizers say this is the first year that hunger among college students has been brought to the fore. 

Students present at Closing the Hunger Gap conference
Mitchell Moravec and Nicole Teague present at student-led workshop, “Transforming a College Campus Hunger Initiative.”

Their workshop, “Transforming a College Campus Hunger Initiative,” focused on the role of student leadership and advocacy. The students, who were able to attend the conference through the generosity of NC State donors, aimed to teach attendees how to increase community resources, decrease obstacles for students in need and confront the stigma of seeking help.

Jayna Lennon, one of NC State’s presenters, hopes that taking the microphone on such a national platform will allow communities to see what they can do to better serve college students in their areas and ultimately to engage in a bigger conversation.

“In order to really address food insecurity on campuses, we need to address the root causes, which takes more than just a food pantry,” she says. “It requires a national movement of different organizations coming together.”

Lennon, a senior double majoring in political science and Arabic, serves as executive director of Feed the Pack, a pantry that stocks food, household and hygiene items for NC State students, staff and faculty members. 

“The more noise we can make, the more attention we can bring, the easier it will be to make progress,” she says. “We have to take direct action. [It’s important to] recognize the balancing act of affording college, affording textbooks, and then on top of that feeding themselves.”

“We need to understand their needs, so we can meet them where they are, rather than trying to grow in ways that are incongruent with what’s actually best for students who are struggling with getting enough food,” says Lennon.

Over the past year and a half, NC State and campus partners have developed programs to support students in need of food, housing, financial and educational security, which have been streamlined to an online source, Pack Essentials.

Students are also finding new ways to break down stigmas through the power of storytelling. A podcast, called Beyond the Bell Tower, allows students, alumni and community members to share personal stories and offer support to low-income, first-generation college students.

But their mission isn’t complete. Feed the Pack welcomed 1,071 visitors in 2018. That’s 393% more since the pantry’s founding in 2012.

“There need to be more permanent solutions,” says Lennon.