George Washington University Opens Food Pantry For Students
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The George Washington University in a well-to-do neighborhood of Washington, D.C., is one of the most expensive schools in the country. The sticker price for a year of tuition, room and board and related expenses is over $68,000. Most students receive some form of financial aid, but sometimes that's not enough.
GW has just opened a food pantry for students, joining over 300 other schools that have done the same. Associate Dean of Students Tim Miller says the idea came after looking at the national research.
TIM MILLER: Well, one of the things we found nationally was the College and University Food Bank Alliance had done a survey, and they found that 48 percent of their respondents did experience food insecurity. And we found that our results were very similar to that. We have a number of students who really don't have enough to eat every week.
CORNISH: For those of us who are old and grew up with, like - maybe went to college and there was a meal plan - right? - and, like, you got to go to the cafeteria X amount of time, how does it happen in a modern day campus that you could find yourself without food?
MILLER: So meal plans at college campuses across the country are all very, very different. There are some that have a very traditional dining hall, some that have a dining hall and a combination of other options, like an a la carte option, and some, like GW, that actually have a plan that focuses on all the options around the city.
What we found is we have a population at GW that does a lot in the city. They intern a great deal. So we actually have a plan that allows our students to meet that need. We also find our students are cooking a lot more for themselves.
CORNISH: So this makes sense. They can run out of money for food.
MILLER: It does.
CORNISH: Now, the way your food pantry works is it's unmarked. Students have to fill out a form with an email address and a GW card number, but they don't have to give their names or talk about their finances. What was the thinking behind that?
MILLER: Sure. So one of the things that we learned from talking to all the other universities that we spoke to this summer was one of the concerns for students is anonymity around this and being able to feel like they can use us without having any judgment.
But in addition, for me, the two real values behind this are faith and trust. We want to have faith in our students that if they say they need this, that they do and trust them to take what they need.
CORNISH: What was the initial response? I mean do you know how many people started to use it, and do you have any sense of whether it helped?
MILLER: So September 12, we did a soft opening, and we already had - despite no advertising yet, we had 21 students sign up for it and we had 21 students accessing it immediately. And then since then, we now have 147 students who signed up for it. And we have gotten amazing stories back from students and amazing notes that have been left for us just about how this has been a blessing to them and how this really has helped them focus on what they thought they could be able to do here.
We had one student who noted immediately she walked in kind of terrified of not knowing what this was going to be like and was just overjoyed and brought to tears when she walked in and saw it was more like a grocery store more than anything else, that she felt like she could go and go to every shelf and take what she most needed versus being, you know, directed you have to take this, this and this. But the fact that there's an empowering part of this is really something we've heard a lot about from the students who've used it so far.
CORNISH: Now, a lot of people are going to hear this, and maybe they know GW is a school that has a reputation for just plain being expensive. Has this caused any discussion on campus about whether it's a sign that the costs of attending school are just too high?
MILLER: Well, I think as an institution, especially under President Knapp, we focused a lot on affordability and try to do everything we can to address affordability issues for students and make sure we provide every support possible. And I think this is just one other thing that we've done, including increasing financial aid, including providing other resources and partnering with a lot of other organizations across the country to provide students the education that we know GW provides as a high-level education.
CORNISH: I think just for the average listener who's hearing a lot in this election in fact about the high cost of college and debt, it's hard to look at a story like the growth of food pantries on very expensive campuses as a positive one.
MILLER: Sure, and I think what it is, is it's a positive response to a really challenging situation, but it's not the ultimate solution. I think we have to look at, how do we help our students afford it? And how do we manage the cost of education - higher education for all students? And I think we're also looking for what that final solution is.
CORNISH: That's Tim Miller. He's the associate dean of students at GW. He directs the department that will oversee the campus food pantry. Tim Miller, thanks so much.
MILLER: Thank you for raising awareness on this issue. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.