Meeting students’ basic needs is about more than just a pantry

Alan Roberts is a partner at Counterculture LLP

In the heart of Portland, Oregon, Portland Community College (PCC) is leading the charge against food insecurity and basic needs challenges among its diverse student population.

Through initiatives like the Panther Pantry and a strategic focus on data-driven solutions, PCC is transforming student support services to ensure every student has the resources they need to thrive.

Panther Pantry, a key part of PCC’s Student Basic Needs Coalition, is more than just a food distribution centre – it’s a lifeline for two-thirds of PCC students. With a mission to remove barriers to student success, the pantry provides essential groceries and supplies to thousands of students, as well as meal kits and access to advice.

Harnessing data for impact

At PCC, it’s data that has been driving the creation and ongoing development of the service. Through an assessment model, the Panther Pantry team collects and analyses the following data points:

  1. Pantry user data: Demographics, usage statistics, and benchmarks which inform targeted interventions.
  2. Feedback loops: User surveys and focus groups ensure continuous improvement.
  3. Budget analysis: Financial insights guide resource allocation and sustainability planning.

Recent data trends revealed a 200 per cent increase in pantry users in autumn 2023, with up to 15,000 visits daily. To adapt, the pantry adjusted operating hours to better align with student schedules and mitigate resource constraints.

They identified particular days of the week that had typically high or low usage and geared their staffing as well as their events towards this. They recognise that some of the driving factors behind this schedule is the class timetable changing each semester, and with that timetable, particular students. As such, this kind of monitoring is continuous.

As well as the data, an annual Basic Needs Survey looks at food insecurity, housing insecurity, homelessness, mental health, and childcare among Portland Community College students.

Last year, of the 30,338 students invited, 3,171 – 10 per cent – responded. Findings revealed that 64 per cent experienced at least one form of insecurity – 43 per cent faced food insecurity, 56 per cent encountered housing challenges, and 18 per cent experienced homelessness in the past year.

Those findings help drive both service provision and lobbying work.

Funding challenges and community support

Running a food pantry on campus comes with financial hurdles. Limited funding from student activity fees – in the US, this is essentially the membership fee paid to the union, this would be block grant in the UK – necessitates creative solutions.

Annual giving campaigns and community partnerships, including a local church’s generous donations, supplement resources and enrich the pantry’s offerings.

PCC’s commitment to student support extends beyond food provision. Initiatives like Panther PACs (meal kits) and free food markets empower students with additional resources, reducing stigma and enhancing accessibility.

PCC is also integrating a new Student Basic Needs Intake Form into orientation processes. This form, which will be rolled out in autumn 2024, promises to streamline support services by capturing vital student insights from the outset, ensuring a more tailored and comfortable experience for incoming students.

Join the movement

As PCC continues its journey to combat food insecurity and enhance student wellbeing, community involvement is paramount. Whether through donations, volunteering, or advocacy, PCC ensures that its communities are a part of the solution, ensuring every student has the opportunity to thrive at Portland Community College.

Portland Community College’s data-driven approach exemplifies the transformative power of information in addressing complex societal challenges.

The Association of College Unions International (ACUI) has established a community of practice for College Unions and Campus Centres who have Basic Needs services.

Meanwhile the Student Basic Needs Coalition started as a student organisation at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville in 2019 – originally formed to advocate for solutions to student food insecurity.

It quickly found that students on their campus and campuses across the country were facing barriers to food, housing, health, and safety that prevented them from finishing their degrees.

In 2020, SBNC at UTK joined forces with a similar group at NC State to launch the Student Basic Needs Coalition as a national nonprofit organisation. It has since grown from a presence on 2 campuses to involvement from youth advocates in 15 states.

Student leaders have designed projects ranging from collecting data on food insecurity to implementing free menstrual products, all of which have impacted over 90,000 students.

As part of the SBNC, the Momentum Institute is a remote, 10-week fellowship program designed to train student leaders in various skills such as enrolling peers in SNAP, educating them on university affordability and student debt, and advocating for policy changes.

Participants engage in recruiting, fundraising, leadership development, understanding food and housing security, data communication, and advocacy. The programme requires a commitment of 3 to 5 hours per week and is supervised by SBNC leaders. After completing the program, students implement their knowledge through SNAP.

SNAP Into Action aims to reduce the student “snap gap” by helping food-insecure college students access SNAP benefits. Approximately 1 in 3 college students face food insecurity, yet 69 per cent of those eligible for SNAP do not receive benefits. Through outreach campaigns, student leaders use software and automation tools to streamline the eligibility determination and application process for SNAP, making it more accessible for their peers.

In the UK we are already seeing developments in this direction, but are very much behind the curve compared to our American colleagues, and as such we will be assembling a UK community of practice for unions who want to work together to share ideas, standards and insight, with a view to linking up with ACUI’s wider CoP. There will be a session at Membership Services Conference in August.

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