Food insecurity is more prevalent than many people realize, particularly among college students.
“A student who is encountering food insecurity experiences a consistent lack of food because of financial conditions,” said Rose Pascarell, vice president for University Life at George Mason University.
Up to one-third of students nationally are impacted by food insecurity. Pascarell noted particular increases among certain student populations at Mason, including international students.
Vulnerable students may find that balancing academics with financial demands can be challenging. Even if students are aware of resources, the social stigma surrounding food insecurity can prevent many from seeking help. Nationally, 34 percent of students drop out of school as a result of such issues.
For students like Nelson Lemus, BS Business ’22, a master’s student in accounting, the stigma was difficult to overcome. In his first semester, Lemus found himself in need of assistance, but asking for help was not easy.
“During the pandemic, I was hit with a situational poverty,” said Lemus. “The option to continue my education was to sleep out of my car, not pay for housing, but to pay for school. I ended up not having enough funds to pay for food or even housing...this was very embarrassing for me.”
Though the social stigma persists around food and housing insecurity, the Mason community strives to reach as many students as possible through outreach and a determined effort to offer resources.
Through the Student Support and Advocacy Center (SSAC) within University Life, Mason offers a variety of resources for students experiencing food insecurity, including access to meal swipes, gift cards to purchase perishable foods, and connections to community resources.
One of Mason’s most well-known programs that directly supports students experiencing food insecurity is the Patriot Pantry. Originally known as the Pop-Up Pantry, the resource was created by then-student Yara Mowafy, BA Global Affairs ‘14, MA ‘15, and University Life staff member Michael Galvin.
“We started bringing our own stuff, toilet paper and things like that,” said Mowafy. “Then University Life staff heard about it, and we started reaching out to other student life organizations, and classrooms I was in.... Everybody found out that we were doing this, and it was no longer a ‘pop-up pantry.’ It was a real, organized thing.”
In 2015, Mason students Gary Hooker and Noah Shoates took over the daily operation of the pantry. The following year the pantry expanded to provide further supplies and resources to students, and was relocated to a new designated space in Student Union Building I. It became an official resource within the SSAC and renamed the Patriot Pantry.
“I am very grateful for the pantry and all the resources Mason provided to me to help me achieve these great milestones I’ve been able to achieve,” said Lemus, who has an offer to work at a Big Four firm upon graduation.
Lemus encourages students who share a similar story to not view Mason’s resources as handouts.
“They are hand ups. They're there to help you overcome whatever situation, whatever hardship you're dealing with,” Lemus said. “So, students should not feel ashamed or embarrassed to receive this support—it is there to help you propel yourself to achieve whatever goals or milestones you have set for yourself.”