A Collaborative Approach to Serving Community College Students with Food and Housing Insecurity

Most agree that education, besides building a viable workforce, adds immeasurably to the fabric of society.   Students in higher education however are sometimes forced to choose between focusing on their education or dealing with issues related to food and housing insecurity.  The California State University (CSU) system, one of the largest systems in the nation, recently studied these problems.  Research findings indicate that 20% of the 460,000 CSU system students at any one time lack consistent access to food and about 10% are homeless (Crutchfield, 2016).  Sadly, the number of students affected by food and housing security is likely higher given the stigma associated with reporting these issues. Assisting these students is more and more seen as an “educational issue” in that students need help with psychosocial needs in order to most fully engage in the learning process.

Based on the above-mentioned study, the CSU system hosted a two-day “Food and Housing Security” conference in June 2106 to share research findings, evidence-based or best practices, and bring awareness to these concerns. One such practice is from CSU-San Bernardino where their School of Social Work has partnered with a student-run food pantry.  This model places a BASW intern at the “DEN” (Delivering Emergency Nutrition) to conduct assessments, make referrals, and dispense emergency food.  Other CSU schools offer similar internships and food pantries, such as at Sacramento State and Fresno State.

SDSU Social Work interns with task supervisor Sade Burrell, MSW

SDSU Social Work interns with task supervisor Sade Burrell, MSW

On a local level, MSW students at the SDSU School of Social Work (SSW) conducted a needs assessment in conjunction with a graduate level course this past spring.  Results revealed similar findings to the CSU study regarding students struggling with housing and food insecurity.  The challenges, however, were outweighed by the strengths and opportunities that were identified in the assessment’s “Community Action Plan.”  The report recommended placing a social work intern on the campus’ Economic Response Crisis Team. This is a multidisciplinary team of campus staff who help assess and refer to resources for students in need. We will have an MSW work intern placed in this program this fall, who will provide on-going case management and/or follow-up as needed.

Student need appears to be even greater at our community colleges. In December 2015, the University of Wisconsin-Madison in partnership with the University of Michigan, the Association of Community Colleges and “Single Stop,” a non-profit dedicated to disenfranchised families, conducted a national survey of community college students.   The San Diego Community College District played a key role with survey administration and Mesa College and City College were part of the sample.  Strikingly, 50% of the survey respondents faced marginal food insecurity over the past 30 days and these same students also tended to face housing insecurity (Wisconsin HOPE Lab, 2015).  The study also captured the most common coping strategies such as public assistance (food, housing and utilities), transportation assistance and veteran’s benefits.

Historically the SDSU SSW has placed MSW interns at San Diego City College’s Mental Health Counseling Center.  Recently the School took the lead to address student housing and food security issues with a unique collaborative idea.  The director initiated a dialogue with San Diego Mesa College, a local community college, and three non-profit agencies — San Diego Youth Services (SDYS), Social Advocates for Youth San Diego (SAY) and Price Philanthropies.   A series of meetings resulted in an innovative university/community college/non-profit partnership to serve college students with food and housing security concerns.

Beginning fall 2016 SDSU SSW will place students Marlee Compton and Shelly Staal, two MSW interns, at San Diego Mesa College.   The interns will work with task supervisor, Sade Burrell, MSW (and SDSU BSW graduate).   SDYS will provide onboarding training and both SDYS and SAY will each provide formal field instruction for the students.   The interns will serve as “resource brokers” to provide advocacy, needs assessments, referrals and linkages to both internal and external resources.  Silvia Barragan, who is serving as Field Faculty, stated “The amount of collaboration and good will exhibited by all of the agencies involved is inspiring.  I have no doubt that Marlee and Shelly will learn a great deal and that the students of San Diego Mesa College will benefit from the collaboration.”

San Diego Mesa College and SDSU are keenly aware of the challenges facing students with housing and food insecurity and look forward to expanding efforts.   Food and housing insecurity, clear “social justice” issues, are at the very heart of social work practice.  It’s time to work together to ameliorate these concerns so that students can focus on education.  The School of Social Work is excited to help partner with Mesa and these agencies to begin to address a need faced by many students.



Crutchfield, R. (2016).  Serving displaced and food insecure students in the CSU. Retrieved from https://www.calstate.edu/AcadAff/documents/ServingDisplacedandFoodInsecureStudetnsintheCSUJanuary20163.8.16.pdf.

Goldrick-Rab, S., Broton, K., Eisenberg, D. (2015). Hungry to learn:  Addressing food & housing insecurity among undergraduates. Wisconsin HOPE Lab: University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Medrano, F., Sparks, A. Sulpizio, E., & Zappia, A. (2016). Community Action Plan:  Aztecs Rise:  Addressing Student Housing and Food Insecurity.  SDSU School of  Social Work in Collaboration with SDSU Economic Crisis Response Team.

Written by Donna Daly, Ph.D.