Free meals bring students back to campus and rebuild community at WMCC

December 11—While in class, cooking student Isabella McHugh is surrounded by food.

But for McHugh and thousands of other community college students in New Hampshire and across the country, finding the time and money to buy meals can be a challenge.

White Mountains Community College Berlin is working to relieve some of the pressure on students by offering free breakfast and lunch on campus.

“It’s good to have that pressure on you,” said McHugh, who lives in Berlin.

Every little bit of money saved helps, she says, especially as rents go up in the city. Not having to worry about planning and preparing breakfast and lunch means it’s easier to focus on your studies.

White Mountains Community College began offering free breakfast and lunch to enrolled students every weekday in the summer of 2021 as more students returned to in-person classes.

The hope was that free lunches would encourage more students to enroll, help ease the burden of attending college, and build community in a fractured student body after distance and blended courses.

So far it seems to work.

Even before the pandemic, university president Chuck Lloyd said, a significant proportion of White Mountains students didn’t always have enough to eat.

“The pandemic has brought to light the issues facing students,” he said.

Some struggle to pay for groceries. Some work and take care of children. These external charges mean that students take fewer courses or even drop out before earning a degree or certificate.

More work, less class

Enrollment at New Hampshire community colleges is down sharply, following national trends since the pandemic. It could spell trouble for colleges, and it means fewer skilled workers will come through the pipeline.

But Lloyd said there were no fewer students. On the contrary, they take fewer courses. Rising wages for entry-level jobs have made work more attractive, and the rising cost of living is making work even more necessary.

Lloyd said college staff members were working to reverse the trend and attract more students. They want to encourage students to enroll in courses. They want students to come to campus for guidance and tutoring that will help them succeed. They want their classmates to build relationships.

All of this on-campus support can make students more likely to graduate – with the skills that will land them not just a $16-an-hour job, but a job with a family wage, opportunities for growth and good benefits.

The free meals seem to help. Kara Gendron, who runs the college cafeteria, said she’s seen more students come to campus for meals — even students who take all of their classes online.

The free lunch program cost about $115,000 for the 2021-22 school year, Lloyd said. Federal pandemic aid and grants from foundations, including one from the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, covered the cost last year and this year.

The college is still collecting data on how the free lunches have influenced the number of courses students take and the number of students completing the programs. But in conversations with students and faculty, Lloyd said the program seemed to be working well enough for the college to make free lunches a budget priority.

If the program drives student retention, perseverance and completion, Lloyd said, the meals are well worth the investment.

Food insecurity

Community college students often come from low-income families, and students have high rates of food insecurity.

A survey by the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University found that 39% of two-year college students reported being food insecure, compared to 29% of four-year college students.

Fewer than one in five students who reported food insecurity received SNAP or food stamps, and more than half of those who struggled said they didn’t ask for any help because they didn’t know. How? ‘Or’ What.

Over the past five years, all community colleges in New Hampshire have opened pantries for their students. In September, Great Bay Community College in Portsmouth also began offering free on-campus lunches through a partnership with a local food bank.

But White Mountain’s effort is unique in New Hampshire. It is the only community college offering breakfast and lunch every weekday and a free dinner every week for its students in Berlin and delivering prepared meals to the Littleton and North Conway campuses.

Lloyd said he hopes the program won’t stay unique for long. White Mountains is preparing a one-page guide to help other colleges launch meal programs, and Lloyd said he thinks employers across the state could be persuaded to support meal programs for their future potential employees.

“At the end of the day, it’s the right thing to do,” he said.

More than one stressor

In the cafeteria, it is clear that the students are taking advantage of the free meals.

First of all, says Gendron, everything is better if your belly doesn’t growl. “Your brain works much better when you’re not starving,” she said.

Food insecurity is an “absolutely huge” problem in the North Country, Gendron said. Even if maintaining housing remains a concern for students, she says, “at least their worries are cut in half.”

The cost of housing and other needs could push students to work longer hours to support themselves and their families in the short term, driving them away from school. Getting meals on campus adds a short-term benefit to the long-term salary increase most students see when they graduate.

“If I go to college, I can count on 11 meals a week,” Lloyd said, and students can shop at the campus pantry. Coming to college currently meets some of the needs of students, which can make as much of a difference as the promise of a better life after a few more years of study.

Sarah Baillargeon, nursing program coordinator at White Mountains Community College, said her students – many of whom are parents – said it had been a big help not to worry about their own meals. They pack the kids’ lunches and take them to school or daycare, and then all they have to focus on is class. The program saves students time and money.

Bringing “community” to college

As the meal program took off, Baillargeon noticed nursing students eating lunch and dinner together. They talk about lessons, compare class and lab notes, and plan to meet off campus to study or just socialize.

“It seems to bring a cohort of students together like family,” Baillargeon said, which she hopes will help students continue through the rigors of nursing school.

“What I see is that it’s rebuilding our community,” she said. “It’s not just students who come to class and leave.”

Students who eat together have stronger relationships, Lloyd said, and he hoped the free meals would make poorer students feel more part of the community — instead of sitting apart, insisting that they are not hungry.

Free meals help students do better in class, save them time and energy, and create a sense of belonging.

“He built a community, for the low cost of feeding people,” Lloyd said.

Making the Grade is a dedicated reporting effort covering education in New Hampshire, with a particular focus on Manchester and the challenges students face in the state’s largest school district. It is sponsored by the New Hampshire Solutions Journalism Lab at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications and is funded by the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, Northeast Delta Dental, the Education Writers Association, and the Institute for Citizens & Scholars.

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