Half Of San Antonio’s College Students Worried About Running Out Of Food During The Pandemic
San Antonio’s five community college campuses have been eerily quiet since the lockdown at the start of the pandemic. Most classes moved online, most staff worked from home, and most buildings weren’t open to the public.
At the same time, the basic needs of students and staff ballooned. So once a month, a corner of each campus blooms with activity. Tents pop up in a campus parking lot as volunteers stack bags of rice and crates of produce. Cars line up in an adjoining lot, waiting to be directed through the line of tents to collect groceries.
Before the pandemic, each campus had a food pantry located in a resource center staffed by case workers and mental health providers. But with the campuses closed, the Alamo Colleges District moved their food pantries outdoors, partnering with the San Antonio Food Bank to provide monthly pop-up markets.
“With us being closed due to COVID, we had to figure out ways to be able to provide that service in a safe way,” said Jillian Denman, the director of the resource center at San Antonio College, during April’s pop-up market. “If us being out here sweating a little or being a little bit cold or getting in the rain and giving (students) some food helps them and their families, that's what we want to do.”
Denman said she and her staff have always served students in need, but the level of need has skyrocketed during the pandemic.
“Students have lost their employment, students have had their hours lowered, or their family members have had that happen to them. And so then being able to afford simple things like groceries has become very difficult,” Denman said.
Almost half of the students enrolled in San Antonio’s public institutions of higher education worried about running out of food during the pandemic, according to a survey TPR sent to college students during the Spring 2021 semester.
Out of the more than 2,600 students who responded to the survey, 49.5% said they sometimes worried they would run out of food without money to buy more. Nearly 30% said they were sometimes hungry but didn’t eat because there wasn’t enough money for food.
Black and Latino students were significantly more likely to say they went hungry or worried about food than white students. This reflects the city’s long-standing racial and economic disparities, which grew starker during the pandemic.
Deniff Lara, a 19-year-old Latina enrolled in her first year at the University of Texas at San Antonio, is one of the 748 Hispanic survey respondents who said they sometimes worried about running out of food this year.
Lara has enough scholarships and grants to cover tuition, books and fees, but she and her mom pay her living expenses out of pocket. She lives at home to avoid paying for an apartment or a dorm.
Her mom cleans houses for a living, and Lara said she lost a lot of work when the pandemic hit.
“My mom started getting unstable work, and she was not able to sometimes fully pay everything or buy everything,” Lara said. “People just did not want her to go over to their houses just because they're up there in age….They did not feel comfortable with her coming over and cleaning. She would clean and sanitize some of their homes, but for the time being she did lose a lot of work. And even now, it's still a little bit unstable.”
Lara got a job at an ice cream shop last spring to help pay the bills, but she had to quit when her classes started at UTSA in the fall because her work schedule didn’t fit her class schedule. Instead, she found a freelance job online as a language coach where she could work fewer hours.
“My mom really wanted me to concentrate on school and my education,” said Lara. “(The freelance gig) has worked out perfectly because it's not a set schedule.”
Lara said they stopped spending money on movie streaming services and eating out, but they still found themselves struggling to put food on the table at the end of the month. They visited food pantries and applied for SNAP benefits to make up the difference.
“At a certain point, it was a bit worrisome. Thankfully, we always had at least rice or beans or something,” Lara said. “It hasn't been easy, but I know of a lot of people that have struggled a lot more.”
At the start of the pandemic Lara used her phone as a hotspot to complete her schoolwork. But she kept running out of data, so they had to start paying for home internet, adding to their monthly expenses.
Lara’s financial aid packet included thousands of dollars in subsidized federal loans, but she declined them because she didn’t want to go into debt.
“Sometimes during the pandemic when we were running low on food, I was like ‘Man, I wish I would have taken those extra ($10,000 in loans). I'd rather pay it back later.’ But at the same time, like I said, I kind of don't regret (not) taking out those loans,” Lara said. “I may not have those extra $10,000, but at least I'm not $10,000 (in debt) either.”
TPR’s survey also asked students about college finances. It found that Latino students were just as likely to take out college loans as white students, but Hispanic students who avoided taking out loans were more likely to say they were worried they wouldn’t be able to pay them back.
In addition to experiencing hunger, hundreds of San Antonio college students said they had trouble paying for housing during the pandemic.
About 30% of survey respondents answered yes to at least one of the questions about housing insecurity — 20% said they sometimes weren’t able to pay their full mortgage or rent, and 18% at least temporarily moved in with other people due to financial problems.
Black and Latino students were significantly more likely than white students to say they sometimes weren’t able to pay their full rent or mortgage.
San Antonio College student Erica McDonald moved into her mom’s house with her husband and two young kids at the start of the pandemic. Her husband worked in hotel management, and was laid off when his hotel shut down.
He found another job at a rehab facility for the elderly, but McDonald said it came with a big pay cut.
“(We’re) so grateful that we've had these stimulus packages happen where it's kept us afloat, but managing a family of four is extremely difficult, especially with children because they're so unpredictable,” said McDonald. “We're managing okay right now, but it's definitely taken a financial (hit compared to) what we're used to doing.”
McDonald, who is 30, stays home to care for her 3-year-old son. She said she thought about finding a job after her husband got laid off, but child care would have been too expensive.
“It would honestly hurt us more than help us,” said McDonald.
Instead she decided to go back to college, a decade after she dropped out.
“I was nervous (that) I was going to be really far behind and not understand what was going on at school,” McDonald said. “But the teachers have been extremely helpful.”
TPR modeled its survey questions on hunger and housing after questions included in a national survey of community college students conducted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2017. San Antonio College was one of the colleges included in the survey.
At the time, 25% of the SAC students who were surveyed said they sometimes went hungry. More than 40% showed signs of housing insecurity, like underpaying rent or moving frequently. The needs uncovered by the 2017 survey motivated the Alamo Colleges District to ramp up services to meet students’ basic needs.
TPR’s survey earlier this year indicates that the level of need seen during the pandemic has grown even sharper. Almost 40% of SAC students surveyed by TPR said they sometimes went hungry this year, and 60% said they sometimes worried they’d run out of food without money to buy more.
Just before the pandemic started SAC’s resource center, known as an advocacy center, received a grant to start a helpline. When the campus closed down, they had to quickly convert the helpline to become students’ one point of contact with the center. Previously, students could walk in and get connected with help for everything from mental health to finding clothes suitable for an interview.
“The launch (of the helpline) was supposed to be after spring break, and we never returned,” said Denman, SAC’s Advocacy Center director. “We did not intend for it to be launched remotely and in the way it did, but we were able to with technology and support from our campus and our leadership.”
Denman said the helpline usually fields 150 to 200 calls a week. They’ve staffed it with work study students, interns and employees who aren’t able to do their regular jobs while working remotely.
“For the most part, we've been able to have almost zero missed calls,” Denman said. “We did have one snafu, which was the winter (storm that shut down power.) The Monday after the campus opened back up after the winter weather we had 1,400 calls in one day.”
Nearly half of the students surveyed by TPR, including Lara and McDonald, said they or someone in their family lost a job during the pandemic. Latino families were more likely to experience job loss than white families, and the lower the family income, the more likely they were to have had someone in the family lose a job — an unsurprising finding, given that lower-paying service sector jobs were more impacted by the pandemic.
More than 90% of those who had a job loss in the family said it affected their income; 30% said it had a large effect on their income.
Across the board, fewer students were able to find employment during the pandemic. Before the pandemic, 73% of survey respondents said they worked. At the time of the survey, only 62% of students had jobs. Students also reported a drop in the number of hours they worked.
Black respondents saw the biggest drop in employment during the pandemic — a 16 percentage point drop from 72% to 56%, with whites and Latinos dropping by 10 to 11 points. However, due to smaller sample sizes among the Black population, the drop in employment was more statistically significant for white and Latino students.
UTSA student Andre Erwin was furloughed from his part-time hotel job in March of 2020, and then laid off entirely in October. He said he wasn’t surprised to hear that Black students like him saw the biggest drop in employment.
“It's hard in general for Black people to be gainfully employed in San Antonio, because we're the minority,” said Erwin.
Erwin, 42, said he struggled to find a job a few years back after quitting a retail management job at Walmart.
“I'm prior military; I’ve got 20 years of retail experience. I was (the) third highest management position in my store...But yet, and still, I couldn't find a job at Ross, you know, like doing anything,” Erwin said.
“San Antonio is one of the more racist cities I've ever lived in,” Erwin said. “When it's time to lay people off, especially during this pandemic? I mean, we're usually the first ones to go, you know what I mean? And that's unfortunate, you know, because a lot of us, we could be the best at our jobs.”
The national unemployment rate for Black Americans — especially Black men — has a long history of being disproportionately high.
Erwin enrolled in college five years ago to fulfill a promise he made to a high school friend who died during the war in Iraq.
“He was the first person I knew to go to college,” Erwin said. “To watch his trajectory and watch him accomplish the things that he accomplished, it's inspiring. He was my only role model that I ever looked up to.”
Erwin graduated with his associate’s degree from San Antonio College in 2018, and then enrolled at UTSA to earn his bachelor’s degree in sociology.
“In between my start at SAC and currently, I had a whole child. I have a daughter now who's 4,” Erwin said. “Now that my youngest daughter was there, that was just added motivation for me to get that done (so I could have more employment options).”
Breaks from college
Almost 40% of survey respondents, including Erwin, said they took a break from college after they first enrolled.
White students were just as likely to take breaks as Black and Latino students, but Latino students were more likely to say the pandemic was part of the reason they delayed enrolling in college or took a break from classes.
Erwin stopped taking classes for two years halfway through his degree at SAC to take care of his newborn daughter, but his daughter also gave him more motivation to complete his degree.
“It was just more beneficial for me to stay at home with her and raise her up and get her situated before I embark back into the whole school life,” Erwin said.
One out of three survey respondents said they took breaks from college to save up money for tuition, but that wasn’t a concern for Erwin. His college expenses are covered because he is a veteran.
Family was Erwin’s primary reason — and the primary concern of many survey respondents. More than 40% of students in the survey said they delayed college or took a break from classes to support themselves or their family.
This is the fourth story in a series of stories based on TPR's survey on college access. Each story explores characteristics of the college experience for San Antonio’s Black and Latino students. The survey was made possible through a fellowship with the Education Writers Association and was administered by the Public Policy Research Institute at Texas A&M University-College Station.
Editor’s note: TPR consulted STATS Sense About Science, USA Director Rebecca Goldin to determine the best way to measure the statistical significance of survey findings. Due to the multiple questions included in the survey, no conclusions about the general student population were made in TPR’s reporting unless the p value was less than .0005. The survey instrument, anonymous survey response data and other statistical information is available for independent analysis here.
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