JSU cafeteria

JSU students eat lunch at the JSU's Jack Hopper Dining Hall on the JSU campus. (Stephen Gross / The Anniston Star)

JACKSONVILLE — Sydney Jones often wished she could donate some of her campus meals to fellow Jacksonville State University students who sometimes didn’t have enough to eat.

“When I was a student, I could tell there was a need,” Jones said.

Now, as a social media specialist at her alma mater, she’s helping start a program to meet that need.

JSU is set to launch its first Donate a Meal Day program on Feb. 22 on campus. The program, to be held on one day each semester, will let students and faculty donate up to five university meals, paid for but not yet eaten, to students who can’t afford enough food. Combined with a food pantry JSU started last fall, the program is the latest in a trend at colleges across the country addressing student food insecurity spurred in part by rising tuition costs and financial instability.

Jones said the university plans to push the program in the coming days in an advertising blitz on social media and fliers. All students or faculty must do to donate is tell a cashier when they visit the campus cafeteria. Students in need of food can visit the university student affairs office and sign up.

Jones said the idea for the donation program grew soon after JSU in October opened its food pantry, which collects donated food for students in need. Once Pamela Beehler, wife of JSU President John Beehler, heard about the idea, she helped coordinate with campus offices and Sodexo, the company that provides the food services at JSU, to set up the program.

“My husband and I strongly support these efforts and we hope that students, faculty, staff and others in the community will consider donating to these needs that affect some of our students at JSU,” Beehler said.

Students who live on campus are required to buy meal plans offered at the university’s cafeteria. According to JSU figures, 1,742 students are living on campus housing this fall, a fraction of the more than 8,000 students enrolled this year. Meal plans cost $1,595 a semester.

According to a report compiled in 2016 by four campus-based organizations around the U.S., food insecurity is a challenge for many students at some point while attending college.

The study, which surveyed 3,765 students in 12 states attending eight community colleges and 26 four-year universities, showed that 48 percent of respondents reported food security in the past 30 days, including 22 percent with very low levels of food security that qualified them as hungry. Also, food insecurity was more prevalent among students of color. Around 57 percent of black students reported food insecurity, compared to 40 percent of white students.

Also, 56 percent of food insecure students reported having a paying job, while 43 percent of students with university meal plans still reported experiencing food insecurity.

Rachel Sumekh, executive director and founder of Swipe Out Hunger, a national nonprofit that currently organizes meal donation programs for 37 colleges, said the issue of hungry students is not new, but it is growing.

“More so than ever, everyone has a chance to go to college through financial assistance,” Sumekh said. “More people with diverse backgrounds are going to college … financial aid can cover tuition, but people who are poor can’t always afford other things like food.”

Sumekh said the rise in college tuition costs in recent years has also made it harder for some students to make ends meet.

Riley Thornton, a dietician in the employee wellness department in the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said hunger can significantly impede students’ lives.

“Incorporating proper nutrition, different variety of foods like grains and dairy, ensure students stay focused in the classroom and out of the classroom,” Thornton said. “You can perform better and longer with proper nutrition.”

Thornton said UAB has for years had its own type of food bank and meal-donation program for needy students.

“Students these days are trying to pay for books and pay for school ... it seems like food can be the last thing they’re going to buy,” she said.

Meanwhile, the JSU donation program might be just starting, but the food pantry — which distributes nonperishable canned and dry items —  is going strong, said Rochelle Smith, director of residence life and overseer of the pantry.

“We’re pretty steady now, with around 30 visits a month,” Smith said. “And the donations coming in are great.”

Staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star.