A SINGLE MOTHER to a six-year old girl with special needs, Kiara Rosario came close to dropping out of Roxbury Community College when she couldn’t feed herself or her little girl. Rosario, who is pursuing a social science degree and wants to work with young people in juvenile detention centers, became food insecure when she faced domestic violence in her own home.
Rosario said her abuser ran off with her EBT card, leaving her in a situation where she couldn’t buy food for herself or for her daughter, who has special diet requirements. It takes 7 to 10 days to receive a replacement EBT card. In that time, Rosario almost gave up on school. “My mind went on survival mode where I wanted to quit school because my priority was to feed my daughter.” Rosario said.
The college stepped in to give Rosario a work-study position to earn money. The associate dean of students, Lisa Carter, also gave her a Stop & Shop gift card to buy groceries through a program at RCC that assists low-income students.
Now, the college has come up with a more comprehensive, long-term intervention for students facing food insecurity: a food pantry housed on its Roxbury campus.
Dubbed “Rox Box,” the food pantry opened its doors to students last Friday. Situated close to the campus student center, it is a convenient place for students to come by during and after school hours to pick up essentials. Carter said the pantry is meant to look as much like a grocery store as possible to try to remove any stigma associated with using it. Shelves of food items, hygiene products, and paper goods line the walls.
Students will not need to apply or share any information to use the pantry other than to confirm that they are RCC students.
“We cannot study and we cannot focus if we don’t have food especially, during midterms and finals,” Rosario said. “Having a food pantry on campus will lead more students to feel safe and welcome. This is a community, not just a place of learning.”
Rosario worked closely alongside Carter to open the food pantry since the idea was conceived a year ago.
The problem it seeks to address is hardly unique to the Roxbury school, which primarily serves lower-income Black and Latino students. According to a 2019 survey commissioned by The Hope Center, a research center at Temple University, 37 percent of students attending public universities in Massachusetts reported that they experienced food insecurity. Food insecurity, which disproportionately affects Black and Hispanic students, is associated with lower odds of college graduation.
RCC recently conducted its own survey of food insecurity, with 81 out of 132 students who responded reporting that they were worried that the food they had purchased would run out before they could purchase more.
Carter, the RCC associate dean, cited a Biden administration initiative as one of the catalysts for launching Rox Box. Last September, the White House announced more than $8 billion in private- and public-sector commitments aimed at ending hunger and reducing diet-related disease. Addressing food insecurity for higher education students was part of this effort.
“We’ve known for a long time that we have students that face food insecurity but we weren’t really in a position to do anything about it up to this point,” Carter said. “With national attention now being paid to hunger on college campuses and with the federal government earmarking funds to help address hunger on college campuses, we were able to leverage those funds along with community partnerships” to open Rox Box.
Roxbury Community College received $180,000 of funding through the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). The effort has also received support from the Rowland Foundation, the Eos Foundation, and Stop & Shop School Food Pantry Program.
Earlier this year, Bunker Hill Community College also leveraged federal ARPA funds to open a second location for a food pantry the college opened in 2019.
“We’re glad that the Biden administration has taken a look at hunger on college campuses,” Carter said. “We know that it exists and now to see that there is intentional work being done on this issue is really bringing a lot of hope. We just know that the students will benefit. In this way, we will remove just one more barrier to student degree attainment. We know hungry students can’t learn.”
Correction: This story originally reported that Stop & Shop contributed $400,000 toward the new food pantry at Roxbury Community College. That figure, in fact, reflects the total amount the company has donated to school-based food pantry programs in Boston.