Inside Higher Ed

It’s Peanut Butter Jelly Time

Why the U.S. government should give sandwiches to needy college students.

Peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Peanut butter and jelly sandwich

Photo courtesy Matias Garabedian/Flickr

This article originally appeared in Inside Higher Ed.

This idea of 45 million peanut butter sandwiches came to me the other day, at a sink. I was washing peanut butter from the wooden cutting board hungry students use every day to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at the Boston community college where I work. Panera and a local parents association donated the bread, and donor funds supplied the PB&J.

Why not, I thought, give one peanut butter sandwich per school day to each of the 9 million students who receive Pell Grants? How many of these are the same students who were eligible for free and reduced-price lunch in high school? No one knows, and no one is counting. How many are from households on food stamps? No one’s asking that, either.

Many of these college students received federal free and reduced-price lunch in high school because their families could not afford enough food for the family. Why not, then, provide 45 million peanut butter sandwiches to colleges each week? Let’s start simple. Public health has long known of the astonishing effects from this simple dose of peanut butter or Plumpy’nut. (Hummus can be substituted for those with peanut butter allergies).

My late discovery, the peanut butter solution, beyond that sink, arrived in the new book, To Repair the World, by the public health leader Paul Farmer. “One remedy for acute malnutrition is known as ready-to-use therapeutic food—RUTF for short,” Farmer writes. “Colleagues from Medecins Sans Frontieres showed in Niger that a miraculous and tasty peanut paste could save the lives of most children with moderate and acute malnutrition.”

A mother of two showed up in my office late one afternoon this summer, and told me she and her children had had nothing to eat that day. Or the day before. Quibble over semantics as you wish, but acute malnutrition isn’t just a problem in Third World countries—college students are going hungry, too. Let’s compare these two statements, one from a leader in higher education, and one from leaders in global public health.

1. President Madeline Pumariega of Miami Dade College’s Wolfson campus: “When a student is hungry, he does not feel safe, and it is hard to help him synthesize class material. We have to meet students’ basic needs in order for them to fully concentrate on assimilating the information in a class in a way that they can apply it, learn, and take it forward.”

2. Médecins sans Frontières: “One of the lessons we’ve learned since the early days is that it’s difficult, sometimes impossible, to treat patients who don’t get enough food to eat.”

So it follows that it must also be difficult to educate students who don’t get enough to eat. The same students eligible for federal free and reduced-price lunch through high school need lunch at college, too. The overlap across Pell Grants, free and reduced-price K–12 lunch, and food stamps is obvious. Aren’t these programs synonyms for poverty for many of the same people?

Critics will say, “But if people are on food stamps, then they aren’t hungry, right?” A knuckleheaded Hill staffer, happy to divulge which prep school he’d attended, said this to me last spring. But food stamps seldom last the whole month. Want proof?

Listen to the national anti-poverty NGO Single Stop USA, which has set up shop on 17 community college campuses across the country. “In 2012, Single Stop USA and its community college partners helped over 2,300 students nationwide access more than $6 million in food stamps. Roughly half of the people who received a public benefit through Single Stop in 2012 received food stamps. These numbers help illustrate how widespread the issue of hunger and poverty is on community college campuses.”

Listen to Dr. Sadhana Dharmapuri, who researches adolescent medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin:Food insecurity and its complex effect on the individual, such as, increase in psychological stress, the physiological changes due to starvation, as well as, other financial hardship due to lack of food is not clearly defined for individuals pursuing a post-secondary education. Although there is data identifying the association of starvation with cognitive functioning, little is known how these changes affect college retention and completion rates, and whether lack of food and/or access to food, has a long term effect on potential learning, earning, and health outcomes.”

Read this 2011 study examining food insecurity at the City University of New York. The study surveyed a random sample of students about their ability to afford food, and found that:

• 39.2 percent of students sampled reported experiencing food insecurity during the previous 12 months. About twice as many reported that they worried they would not have enough money for food as those who reported they often or sometimes went hungry for lack of money.

• 19.1 percent reported that they knew of other students who had food or hunger problems.

Listen to me. Every month, the Greater Boston Food Bank brings a truckload of food to Bunker Hill Community College. Each time, nearly 200 students take food for themselves and their families. Each weekday, Bunker Hill distributes several cases of leftover bread from Panera to our students. For younger students, the Weekend Backpack Program in Cambridge, Mass., sends a backpack of food home with eligible public school students at the end of the week so they’ll have food for the weekend.

I was closing up one evening last summer. We hadn’t been able to find a shelter for a homeless student, but I did have bread and peanut butter, so I made him five peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the weekend. I put them into a bag for him, along with the jar of peanut butter, a loaf of bread, and a plastic knife. “All this?” he asked. “Sure,” I said. “Just finish your education, run for president, and make sure no one in the U.S. is ever homeless again.”

“My dream is to have no homelessness for students in college or any young people,” he said.

“What’s your plan?” I asked.

“I’d have shelters by age. There should be shelters for middle school students, then for high school, then for college,” he told me.

I gave him paper, pens, and a folder. “Come back Monday with your plan, and we’ll send it to Senator Elizabeth Warren,” I said.

I haven’t seen him again.