In his early college years, Jerry Willburn had a hard time focusing on his studies because he had to worry about where to find his next meal. He was 30 years old when he enrolled at San Jose State University (SJSU) in 2010, newly jobless after Fremont-based New United Motor Manufacturing Plant buckled under the weight of global recession.
For a time, his schedule revolved as much around his six classes as the daily treks to local soup kitchens and food pantries. He ate ramen and canned veggies from the campus food shelves and, by way of a meandering bus trip, the occasional hot meal from Sacred Heart Community Service. The stress, he says, drove him to counseling.
“I had savings, but I burnt through them after six months,” he says. “When you start running out of your savings, it’s all focusing on survival. Once a student is in that frame of mind, the chance of [focusing on] being a student becomes really slim because you’re thinking about quitting college and working for another company full time to make rent.”
After months of agonizing over hunger and the threat of eviction, Wilburn put himself on a list for crisis counseling. Thankfully, he found a part-time job at the university to pull him out of survival mode and into a mindset that allowed him to see the future again. Now 36 years old and working on his master’s degree, he makes enough cash to get by and stay focused on what matters: his education.
Willburn is hardly alone in his experience. One in five California State University (CSU) students—57,000 of them—worry about hunger, according to a striking new report commissioned by Chancellor Timothy P. White. Meanwhile, one in 10 deal with homelessness.
The survey of 460,000 students marks the first time in the nation that a public university system asked students about their personal experience with hunger and homelessness. University officials plan to use that data to figure out how to meet those subsistence-level needs so students can focus on graduating.
“These are our students,” White said in a statement last month about the findings. “These are the strivers who will define for a generation what it means to radically change the course of one’s life. We must do all that we can to ensure that they have a place in this world where they can go when they are hungry and have no place to sleep.”
San Jose State conducted a similar campus-wide study in 2014, which showed that about half of students skipped meals because of cost. And one in three said they’ve had to choose between food or rent, transportation and utilities.
Wilburn says he knows of at least 53 San Jose State students who sacrifice stable housing to stay in school. It doesn’t help that California’s public university tuition costs have doubled over the past decade and tripled since 2000, according to a recent analysis by the Sacramento Bee. Compounding the problem are the rising costs of textbooks and rent, a dearth of affordable housing and higher student loan fees.
“When you look at Silicon Valley, rent is high,” says Stephanie Fabian, who manages the school’s student food resources. “Living conditions are expensive. When you are dealing with a city where rent is dramatically different, you can see the struggle among students who are deciding if their salary should be going to textbooks, rent or food.”
According to the Pew Research Institute, millennials stand to become the most educated generation in history. That they have to choose between their academic success and basic survival is unconscionable, school officials say. It means delaying graduation to take on more work or dropping out altogether—especially if they have children to feed and house.
Going homeless and hungry also means suffering mental and physical maladies. A 2014 study by the American Society for Nutrition found that people who lack food are more likely to lapse into depression. Another report in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry found that hunger increases the risk of anxiety, a litany of mood disorders and drug and alcohol abuse. All of which, studies show, lead to less focus and lower grades.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP—formerly called food stamps—offers only limited help. To qualify, a person must actively look for a job, not voluntarily quit or reduce hours to focus on school. California’s CalFresh program may allow for some exceptions, depending on the county and extenuating circumstance.
After the local 2014 survey that showed the extent of student hunger, SJSU formed a committee to bolster resources for those who need help. The school now keeps 15 stocked pantries throughout the campus and require no identification or sign-in for the food. Although, on a recent visit to one pantry it looked like slim pickings: a dozen Campbell soup cans and a single packet of instant oatmeal. Wilburn says that underscores the need for more donations.
But the state’s year-long study out in June showed some ways to improve the safety net for SJSU students. Struggling students have access to only a limited number of emergency meals, according to the report. They can apply for a short-term $500 loan but have to repay it within two months or end of semester. To make up for the lack of on-campus assistance, the school is making efforts to connect students with outside nonprofits and government subsidies.
Elizabeth Agramont-Justiniano, a SJSU sociology major who spearheaded the school’s food shelf program in 2015, says Costco delivers about $2,500 worth of food ever months and still falls short of what’s needed to feed students. The issue hits close to home, she says, as her college-educated parents relied on food stamps when she was a child.
“There were times growing up when we couldn’t eat,” she says. “I just remember that experience, growing up and even having some of the resources and not getting enough. That’s why I’m trying to help the students.”
Correction: A previous version of this article erroneously stated that Jerry Wilburn helps manage the food pantries at SJSU. Also, Elizabeth Agramont-Justiniano founded the food shelf program in 2015, not in 2012 as previously indicated. San Jose Inside regrets the errors.