Students take to the (virtual) Capitol

No one should have to worry over lack of food or access to safe housing, especially during a pandemic. Yet, these problems are so widespread that 38 percent of college students say that they don’t have the means to meet their basic needs, let alone stay enrolled for next term.

Fresh off of their campaign to ensure that their peers turned out to vote in record numbers for the 2020 elections, leaders with the Student PIRGs from around the country organized a week of action to draw attention to housing and food insecurity.

Student leaders in a meeting with the office of Congressman Scott Peters. Photo credit: Staff.

Back in March, Congress passed the CARES Act, a sweeping coronavirus relief package that included $14 billion in emergency aid to colleges and to students. That money quickly went to pay for the pivot to remote instruction, and to cover unexpected travel expenses and basic needs for vulnerable students. It’s clear now that those funds, while appreciated, were nowhere near enough to meet the needs of America’s college students, especially at community colleges, which have seen huge drops in student enrollment. That’s why we’re calling on Congress to offer more emergency grants, and better serve the needs of today’s students by allocating funding to institutions that serve part-time students.

Student leaders organized a virtual Hunger Lobby Day that brought over 120 students to meet with their elected representatives in Congress. Students educated Members of Congress and their staff on how the pandemic, food insecurity, and housing insecurity are affecting them and their peers. Students shared personal stories and advocated for increased funding to meet students’ basic needs in any future pandemic relief legislation. In all, students met with nearly 60 offices.

“Coming from a low income and undocumented family, I wanted to do what I could to alleviate the stress of having to pay for my tuition. But when the pandemic hit, even more uncertainty came with it. My dad works at a moving company, and it’s very unclear how long we are going to be able to bear the financial challenges of COVID. I switched to my local community college, and decided not to re-enroll at UC Santa Barbara for the spring because I partly felt like I was making a decision between continuing my education or perhaps another month’s worth of bills. That’s not a choice that students should be forced to make – so I’m really excited that I got to share my story with our representatives and urge Speaker Pelosi and her staff to act quickly to help students like us.”
—CALPIRG student leader Sarah Vargas

Student leaders at the University of Central Florida during their fundraising event. Photo credit: Staff.

In addition to advocating for structural change, our students worked to meet their communities’ immediate basic needs through fundraisers, educational events, and more. On campuses across the country, students made a big impact: 

  • The PIRG chapter at the University of Maryland – College Park co-hosted an event with Challah for Hunger that drew over 70 attendees. Evelyn Kelly, Program Director for the Institute of Public Health Innovation, spoke about advocating to end hunger and reduce food insecurity.
  • In one day, PIRG students at the University of Central Florida (pictured above) raised more than $1,500—enough to feed and house 8 kids for the rest of the year.
  • The University of Oregon organized a virtual gala that raised over $750 for the local food pantry, helping them provide over 1,600 meals.
  • University of South Florida students held a phone-a-friend fundraiser for USF’s on-campus food pantry where they called their family and friends to ask for donations and raised $350, enough to feed 175 students for a week. This food pantry is a critical service on a campus where almost 46 percent of students struggle with food insecurity and faculty and staff face major salary cuts due to the ongoing pandemic and economic crisis.