Bridgette Nobbe, left, and Brianna Seltzer prepare food for students at the University of Arizona’s campus pantry. The pantry provides food to students who otherwise couldn’t afford it, and is seeking to extend its hours and add to its available resources.

The old adage of hungry students subsisting on ramen noodles has long been a joke on college campuses. But, a new government study says the problem of food insecurity among university students is real and that many students who might qualify for help were not getting it.

The report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office said as many as 2 million at-risk college students who were not receiving federal nutrition benefits, such as through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, might be eligible for them. Many of the students at risk for food insecurity were likely from low-income families and either first-generation college students and/or single parents, the report stated.

The report recommended the federal government simplify the student eligibility rules to receive nutrition benefits and for states and schools do a better job of informing college students about the availability of such programs like SNAP while they are enrolled. More help for students applying for the benefits is also needed, the report said.

The University of Arizona has taken recent steps to help students who may be struggling with hunger, including better access to a campus food pantry, new meal plans, transportation to grocery stores and more information about available federal nutrition benefits, such as SNAP.

Running out of options

When Brittni Merry began at the UA, she, like many incoming freshmen, had a meal plan. To buy food on campus, she used her student CatCard that she preloaded with cash at the beginning of the school year. However, months before each semester of her freshman year ended, she had used all the money on her card for food.

“During fall 2017 I used it all before mid-November and in spring I used it before April. It was hard,” said Merry, now a sophomore.

Without a job, a car or financial support, she felt panicked. Merry received a Pell Grant to help pay for school, but the federal aid was “barely enough to pay for the year,” she said. Merry said she couldn’t rely on her family for more money because of her mother’s financial situation.

Situations like Merry’s are becoming more common for U.S. college students, according to the GAO report released in December.

Students must pay for the increasing cost of tuition, textbooks, additional fees, gas or transportation and sometimes, rent and utilities. By the time all expenses are paid, there’s little or no money left for food.

The report was generated by analyzing 31 studies on college food insecurity published in the U.S. since 2007 and visiting 14 public colleges and universities to meet with administration, students and researchers. The UA was not included in the report.

The GAO found that as more low-income and “nontraditional” students attend school, more assistance is needed to ensure they finish their degrees.

In fiscal year 2017, the federal government spent more than $122 billion for federal student-aid programs in an attempt to make college more accessible.

“This substantial federal investment in higher education is at risk if college students drop out because they cannot afford basic necessities like food,” the report stated.

Hunger pains

When Merry ran out of food, she started job hunting on campus to earn money. “Unfortunately, everyone else had the same idea,” she said.

Merry was hired by a company off-campus but spent most of her paychecks on the commute to and from work.

“I also ended up going to work more often than class,” she said. “It was easier to skip class when there was no immediate damage to my life, whereas skipping work would get me fired, which would mean no money for food.”

According to a 2016 UA Campus Climate Survey, 20 percent of UA undergraduates reported skipping a meal because of lack of money. The report called food insecurity among students one of the most “alarming emerging issues” on campuses across the country.

The survey said 41 percent of UA undergraduate students agreed that their ability to attend or stay enrolled in school had been negatively affected by a lack of money; 52 percent said they often or always ate unhealthy meals because healthier options were too expensive.

Since the 2016 survey, the UA has implemented several programs to try to address food insecurity, such as new campus meal plans that promote healthier options for a flat rate. The program began last fall, so the results are still unclear.

Addressing the need

Merry eventually quit her job once she found one on campus, and found a paid position at the student-run Campus Pantry, which makes free food available to hungry students.

Michaela Davenport, a UA junior and the student director for the Campus Pantry, said it’s not just money that restricts access to food. Lack of transportation and available time are also hindrances.

The UA does make transportation to some grocery stores available to students. For example, the CatTran will ferry students to a nearby Safeway, but only at certain hours and “students have weird schedules,” Davenport said.

Students can also use the UA’s SafeRide program to get to stores, but it operates with restricted hours and limits the number of grocery bags a student can travel with.

Food insecurity can happen at any point, Davenport said. “It can happen to a student once in their career, it can happen repeatedly at the end of the month after all the bills are paid ... The beginning of the semester is hard too as you wait for reimbursement.”

The Campus Pantry has grown quickly in the nearly seven years since its inception.

In 2012, the pantry was open only when it had enough food to pass out.

About four years ago, the pantry moved to the UA Student Union, which has provided it more space and resources, Davenport said. The pantry also receives fresh produce from the union’s rooftop garden.

Last year, the pantry was open three hours per week. It is now open 11 hours per week and serves about 500 students weekly.

The pantry has also partnered with the Arizona Department of Economic Security. DES representatives come out during pantry distribution days to sign up eligible students for SNAP benefits or show them how to file the proper paperwork, student body president Natalynn Masters said.

For now, the students are seeking to extend pantry hours and add to the resources available for hungry students. The Campus Pantry website also provides links that help students find food immediately.

Contact Mikayla Mace at mmace@tucson.com or 573-4158. Follow on Facebook and Twitter.