Staggering Number of Cal State Students Go Hungry, Homeless

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.


  1. There is an easy solution to this problem. Test all student’s according to 1960 university standards and expel the 4 out of 5 who don’t even come close to measuring up, freeing them to take their 8th grade skills out into the working world where they can earn the price of a meal.

  2. Here’s a modest suggestion.

    Require all students studying for degrees in ethnic or gender studies, basket weaving, finger painting, self esteem, movie appreciation, history of rock and roll, or global warming studies to pre-pay all tuition, housing, and food service fees IN ADVANCE IN CASH.

    This will weed out a big part of the hopeless helpless and dramatically reduce the number of Cal State students who are homeless and hungry.

    • I earned a degree in Dance at SFSU when rents, food and tuition were affordable in this region and the predatory student lan industry did not exist; many years later have an esteemed career in arts administration. Your remarks about clearly demonstrate a sadly narrow perspective.

      • > I earned a degree in Dance at SFSU . . .

        If I were counseling students to get $100 K student loans to enroll in the SFSU Dance degree program, my conscience would bother me.

        And I’m a heartless curmudgeon.

  3. The headline says students “go hungry”. In paragraph 5, the report is that students “worry about hunger”. Big difference, We need to know the study’s definition of “worrying” about hunger” to evaluate the study’s claims. I’d bet that if you asked obese people if they worry about hunger, 100% would answer yes and 80% would respond that they go hungry daily.

  4. ““When you look at Silicon Valley, rent is high,” says Stephanie Fabian, who manages the school’s student food resources. “Living conditions are expensive.” True. So, try CSU Stanislaus, Sacramento, Bakersfield, Fresno, Long Beach San Marcos, or San Bernardino, all of which have much lower rental costs.

  5. What’s with this article? It’s a just a series of observations. No real world solutions are offered, other than ‘people should donate more’. So things are tough. Join the club.

    Today’s college snowflakes feel entitled. They have no idea how bad things can get, compared with their current whining. And the guy in the picture doesn’t look like he’s underfed. If this is the worst experience they’ll have in life, they will be amazingly fortunate.

    When they mature and start to figure things out, these kids will realize that they’re the patsies; the marks, for the Student Loan program, which is nothing more than a scheme to enrich colleges and universities by making loans very easy to get, with high limits.

    The result is that the schools sharply raised their tuition, and the students had to take out loans to pay the higher tuition costs. The loans are easy to get. But if they graduate with a ‘Hispanic Studies’ degree or similar and find they can’t get a job, that loan is going to be the elephant in the room, financially.

    Also, Student Loans have an unusual kicker for the lending banks: borrowers can’t declare bankruptcy like they can with other loans. So they have what could easily be a lifetime albatross around their necks: a big Student Loan ($100,000+ isn’t uncommon) that accrues interest. If they’re out of work and can’t make the payments, the amount owed keeps getting bigger. Try to buy a house with that on your application.

    The students are the chumps. They were set up. This whole Student Loan scam was cooked up by some politicians and their .edu cronies — at the expense of future students they don’t know, and will never meet. So what do they care if things don’t work out, and you have to make big payments for the next 20 – 30 years? They don’t care about you. You’re not their kid. You were just a means to an end. No hard feelings…

    There’s a good lesson here: No loans. Pay as you go. Like millions of others have. Don’t play the student loan game. It’s rigged.

  6. Has the US undergone a complete shift in the past 30 years?

    I put myself through college via scholarships and jobs. Yes, it took longer than 4 years, but the co-op experience resulted in immediate FT job offers at a substantially better starting salaries than other newly minted grads. And no student debt. The lack of a degree didn’t hurt once prospective employers realized I was completing one. Job references and skills carried more weight even when a degree was listed as a pre-requisite.

    My employers knew me and I gained valuable skills through the work environment. Also caused me to choose courses and electives that employers valued – not just easy A’s to boost GPA. I’m struggling to understand what ‘s changed or if this really about students making poor choices and academics that enable them.

    • > Has the US undergone a complete shift in the past 30 years?

      > I’m struggling to understand what ‘s changed or if this really about students making poor choices and academics that enable them.

      What has changed is the educrat and political classes’ promotion that EVERYBODY needs to go to college. And to make that “dream” a reality, central planners introduced enormous distortions into the employment market.

      The U.S. economy really only requires a finite number of people with college degrees. People beyond that number AREN’T NEEDED in the economy, are over educated and over qualified and unaffordable by employers.

      But, it’s terribly politically incorrect to say this, and hurts peoples feelings, and “it denies people opportunities”.

      Well, there’s a finite number of opportunities, and someone who thinks they deserve an opportunity, ISN’T GOING TO GET AN OPPORTUNITY.


  7. LOL !
    I don’t suppose we could talk the UC regents into a 50% paycut to help feed the starving students.
    If Hillary wins and makes college free, do you think these kids could feed themselves or will that be George Bush’s fault too?

    • Empty, Good point. Tuition costs have skyrocketed since I was in school. Primary factors include administration salaries and a vast expansion of non-academic costs.

      Colleges/ universities are among the worst when it comes to cost control. Support functions like payroll, benefits, building and grounds, etc. are almost always staffed by school employees. By contrast, most companies outsource these “non-core” activities at substantial savings.

      Tuition has significantly eclipsed other CPI components and, unlike other sectors, been immune to efficiency improvements.

      Truth in SJOB’s point too. Education is free in Germany. They graduate many skilled blue collar students that are immediately employable. Many believe Germany’s approach has made it Europe’s economic superpower despite their high labor cost and social program costs.

      • As long as the Government is doling out the loan’s the price will keep going up!
        I’m still eating Ramen noodles not Campbells soup!

  8. The reason students are homeless and hungry is because this country is run by the kind of people posting here. Low-level psychopaths, patting themselves on the back for their own “hard work” and “pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps” 30-40 years ago when this state was still affordable, and gloating over the misfortune of those less privileged than themselves. So hateful, obnoxious and selfish, no wonder the rest of the world can’t stand Americans. When the revolution comes, these people will be the first to face the firing squads, and no one deserves it more.

    • Vlad,
      If the rest of the world can’t stand Americans, why the hell would we have the immigration problem we have.
      They’re not escaping!

  9. > When the revolution comes, these people will be the first to face the firing squads, and no one deserves it more.

    The revolution came. It was the Neolithic Revolution. You missed it.

    Just continue sitting on your haunches waiting for a deer burger to come along and jump in your mouth.

    Primitives never learn.. That’s why they will always be starving, naked primitives.

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