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The author, Samantha Retamar, at her college graduation from University of South Florida in May 2015. Photo: Courtesy of the author
The author, Samantha Retamar, at her college graduation from University of South Florida in May 2015. Photo: Courtesy of the author

Hunger should not be a part of the college experience

Samantha Retamar, communications coordinator at Philabundance, reflects on her struggle with food insecurity as a college student.  

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I was 17-years-old sitting in my high school yearbook class in Hollywood, Florida, when I got the email: “Congratulations! I am pleased to inform you of your acceptance to the University of South Florida for the 2011-2012 school year.

Now, take the word proud and multiply it by infinity, and that still does not describe the feeling of glory my Puerto Rican mother exuded during my four years at USF. I am the fourth of five children and was the first to go to college.

As excited as I was to embark on my journey as a Mass Communications student in Tampa, I had an overwhelming sense of fear of letting my mother down. All of her hard work and emphasis on education as the key to success was a major factor in me getting into college and it was my job to graduate and make her proud.

Although I had several scholarships and income-based grants, money was an issue throughout my four years at USF. While my mother helped as best she could, I did not dare ask her for more financial help because she did her job; she got me into college and I could not have her worrying about me now that I was an “adult.”

Fast forward two years post-grad, I moved to Philadelphia and began working at Philabundance, the largest hunger relief organization in the Delaware Valley, where I was immersed in the crisis of food insecurity faced by 1 in 5 people in my new city. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food insecurity as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life.

It was not until I began learning about the growing issue of college hunger through speaking with pantries and clients that I realized I was, by definition, food insecure for the majority of my college career.

All of the signs were there: skipping multiple meals in one week or day? Check. Paying for books over buying groceries? Of course. Searching for campus events that provided free food? All of the time!

How could I not have known I was food insecure for nearly four years? Easy, it was the norm. It was not as if I was an isolated case, as most of my friends were choosing $300 textbooks over groceries for the month and eating ramen noodles for three square meals a day.

The majority of my friends in college were students of color, many were food insecure and had the same sentiment as I did when it came to asking our families for help. Our families had sacrificed enough to get us to college and many of us were first-generation college students whose parents were not in a place to provide financial assistance.

My best friend Bree said it best: “Girl, my aunt has her own bills to pay. She can’t be worried about if I’m eating or not. I’ll figure it out.”

During our sophomore year, Bree and I began working at Subway on campus for 30 plus hours weekly. On Sundays we would prep vegetables for the week, with produce being a luxury that we could not afford on our minimum wage budgets.

When our supervisor realized that something as simple as vegetables was seen as a luxury to us she said, “Okay, I am going to turn around and if there are some ‘bad veggies’ we can’t chop up, y’all can ‘toss them.’ Whether you toss them in your bags or the garbage I won’t know because my back is turned.”

Sure enough Bree and I filled our purses with green peppers, onions, spinach, cucumbers and more from that Sunday morning and almost every Sunday morning for a year. Years later, Bree and I still talk about how the kindness of our boss gave us access to fresh produce we otherwise never would have had.

During one summer semester, a friend and I had really hit rock bottom financially and decided to buy a five dollar Little Caesars pizza, cut the eight slices into 16 and ration that for meals that week. Not long after that I was introduced to a student that was not struggling as much because she applied for and received SNAP benefits, formerly known as food stamps. She explained to me that college students in Florida are sometimes eligible and I should look into applying.

I applied for SNAP benefits in my junior year and was awarded a little over $100 a month. That money allowed me to fill my fridge with fruits and veggies, buy meat to cook and I no longer had to choose between eating and my education. I utilized SNAP through the end of 2015, but in many states, including Pennsylvania, students are not eligible to apply for SNAP benefits.

After four years, my mother shed tears of joy as I walked across that stage and earned my B.A. in Mass Communications. Her little pegajosa was a college graduate. Seeing my mother beam with pride showed me that this accomplishment was just as much hers as it was mine.

On such a monumental day for my mother, did she know that my degree came at a cost other than tuition and books? Did she know that there were nights her daughter went to bed hungry? Did she know for more than a year the only produce her nena consumed were the excess veggies she took from her job at Subway? No, and I kept it that way because she did her job in getting me on the path to higher education and I did what I could to keep myself there -- even if it meant sacrificing food on my journey to success.

My story is not unique. In fact, my story is the reality for many students of color entering higher education through the sacrifices of their parents. Getting into college and maintaining good grades is only half of the battle; financially being able to stay there by any means necessary is the other half.

I am lucky enough to have graduated and now work to combat food insecurity in our communities and I have a message for college students everywhere:

Hunger should not be a part of the college experience. No college student should have to choose between school and food.

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