Tennessee lawmaker looking to establish college food pantry grant program

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — One Tennessee lawmaker wants to help ease the strain of food insecurity on college campuses in the Volunteer State.

Sen. Becky Massey (R-Knoxville) is moving a bill through the Senate that would address the “ever-growing” issue on college campuses, she said during a Senate Education Committee meeting this week.

SB1977 would establish the classification of “hunger-free campuses” as well as a grant program to help fund and supply food pantries for hunger-free campuses in Tennessee.

According to Massey, in order to qualify as a hunger-free campus, a school would be required to have a physical food pantry on campus or partner with an already-established pantry local to the campus. Additionally, the bill would require the school to establish a food insecurity task force that must include at least two student body members.

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“Funding from this grant would be used to establish, expand or improve campus food pantries, create meal voucher programs for dining halls and any other food insecurity measures that the university sees fit,” she said in committee.

<em>Sen. Becky Massey in the Weds., March 13, 2024 Senate Education Committee (Source: Tennessee Senate)</em>
Sen. Becky Massey in the Weds., March 13, 2024 Senate Education Committee (Source: Tennessee Senate)

The bill as written was left “open” so as to allow each college campus to navigate the best ways that fit their respective student body needs and address food insecurity in their own way, Massey added.

According to the bill, the grant would be operated by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, which recently released a report that showed 30% of Tennessee higher education students facing food insecurity.

“Students who experience this food insecurity often have lower test scores, poorer mental and physical health, and oftentimes take fewer credits at a time, which keeps them in school longer,” Massey told the committee.

The bill is currently supported by a number of organizations, according to Massey, including the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, Swipe Out Hunger, the Tennessee Board of Regents and multiple student advocacy groups.

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Asked if the program would only be for campuses that lacked a cafeteria or dining hall by Sen. Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald), Massey said no, it would apply to all higher education colleges and universities.

“Oftentimes, students don’t have the money to purchase the meals, so this would address the needs dependent upon what resources that particular university or campus had,” she said, highlighting the work of the Big Orange Pantry at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. “We have a group on the UT Knoxville campus that works to box up meals, and they actually the usable food leftover from the UT football games and box it up for hunger relief efforts.”

Sometimes, she added, by virtue of paying for tuition, some students are left without funds to afford a meal plan, so this grant program would help students without those funds ensure they have healthy meals every day.

Sen. Mark Pody (R-Lebanon) credited Massey for the effort, saying she had “one of the biggest hearts of all the legislature.” However, he said one issue he had with the bill was helping young adults over children.

“Whether somebody is disabled or having any kind of issue, you are always there rescuing them and trying to find funds,” he said. “My issue with the bill is this: not what you’re doing, but if we were to spend money, I would much rather be focused on kids in grade school and helping them more than those that are in college.”

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Massey countered, saying this effort was part of a two-pronged approach on food insecurity with another lawmaker who was carrying the grade school-age food insecurity bill.

Sen. Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis) also lauded Massey for her bill, noting that existing federal programs currently assist with food insecurity eradication efforts on the K-12 level, but nothing like that currently exists for college students.

“In some of our smaller, more impoverished communities, this is the difference between a student being able to have a meal or not, and I really thank you for bringing this legislation,” she said.

Massey’s bill passed 6-2-1 and will go before the Senate Finance, Ways, and Means Committee. The House version of the bill is set for the March 20 calendar in the House Education Administration Committee.

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