LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — It was nearing 10 p.m. on a Tuesday when six friends finally sat down to eat dinner in an apartment-like dorm on the Indiana University-Southeast campus in New Albany.
The group doesn't usually eat so late. But since the friends learned they each struggle to afford groceries while attending school full time, they've been combining their food to make sure everyone gets a home-cooked meal each weeknight.
That Tuesday, dinner was chicken and dumplings, with cans of vegetables pulled from the university's on-campus food pantry. Other nights, it's pasta with tomato or Alfredo sauce. The group rotates the daily responsibilities of who makes the meals, who cleans the dishes.
Each of the friends has bills to pay, from car insurance to college tuition. But while several work part-time jobs to keep up with the costs, all have found it difficult to bring in steady incomes while pursuing degrees they hope will lead to financially stable futures.
Across the country, students from low-income households are enrolling in college at increasing rates — with 39 percent of undergraduates falling at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty line in 2016, according to data from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study.
The students often have access to thousands of dollars in financial aid from federal and state programs. But if they experience food insecurity — the condition of having limited or uncertain access to adequate food — the students can risk falling behind in classes or dropping out of college completely.
In Kentucky and Southern Indiana, universities are attempting to meet students' basic needs by opening on-campus food pantries and launching food rescue programs that provide meals to students who can't always make ends meet.
Recently, students opened a food pantry at the University of Louisville, joining similar programs at such local colleges as Bellarmine University, Spalding University and IU-Southeast.
Nationally, more than 640 colleges and universities operate food pantries on campus, according to a list kept by the College and University Food Bank Alliance.
Some schools take their free food programs a step further, such as Baylor University, which organizes free farmers markets twice each year, and the University of California-Irvine, which opened a FRESH Basic Needs Hub in 2017. The hub has emergency food and toiletries on-hand, and it also Smart Eaters Life Skills classes, which teach students how to eat healthily on a budget.
Jeanette Hansen, 20, said without IU-Southeast's food pantry, she and her friends would have to skip meals or make tougher financial decisions.
"I was late paying my school bills several times because I didn't have (the money)," said Hansen, who works part time at the campus bookstore and pays her own tuition. A year of classes at IU-Southeast costs $7,343.60 for in-state students. "I had to choose between school and food."
With the pantry, IU-Southeast can help keep people in classes, benefiting both the school that relies on their tuition dollars and the students who are seeking better opportunities, said Karen Richie, a counselor and care manager within IU-Southeast's personal counseling services.
"Our students are here for a reason," Richie said. "A majority of them are here on their own choice; not because their parents said they had to go to college. They are here to create a better life for themselves and possibly even their families.
"Nobody should be sitting in class hungry and unable to focus. We want people to be successful, so we want to meet those needs."
In spring 2016, four campus-based organizations conducted a survey of nearly 4,000 students in 12 states that found nearly 48 percent of respondents were struggling with food insecurity.
The findings, released in a "Hunger on Campus" report, were consistent with similar studies published before and after, including a survey conducted at the University of Kentucky.
In December, the UK Food and Housing Security Workgroup released a report stating that 43 percent of the students it surveyed experienced some level of food insecurity in the past 12 months, while 8 percent of students surveyed experienced some form of housing insecurity in that time.
The high number of students experiencing food insecurity came despite UK's yearslong effort to combat the issues.
Since 2014, the university has operated the Big Blue Pantry, which provided nearly 8,000 pounds of food — enough to fill half a dump truck — across 480 unique student visits in the 2017-18 academic year.
The school's dining services have also committed to donating 2,000 meal swipes per semester to students in need. In fall 2018, 112 students received an average of 18 swipes for free meals on campus, said Amanda Hege, director of community outreach for the Dietetics and Human Nutrition Department.
Hege said the programs are a great start to address food insecurity on campus. But she said solving the complex issue will take a systemwide approach.
"Of those students that received meal swipes, the majority are working more than 10 hours a week and are being paid less than $10 per hour," Hege said.
Students at the University of Louisville- where a year of tuition has jumped nearly 60 percent since 2007 — began organizing their own campus food pantry last year in part because they realized their school was one of the last in the region without such a program.
Henny Ransdell, 20, and Erin Kurtz, 23, had already helped start a food rescue program that collects unused food from campus dining establishments and delivers it to area nonprofits, such as St. Vincent de Paul and the Center for Women and Families.
The friends said they recognized that some of their peers could also use the food, and in mid-2018, they began researching the best ways to run a pantry on the school's Belknap campus.
Ransdell, Kurtz and Ryan Buckman, 21, said they expected the pantry to take at least a year to come together. But once they got support from the campus' student government and the Engage Lead Serve Board, plans for the pantry progressed quickly.
The group secured space for the pantry in a former janitor's closet within the Student Activities Center, and it received a $3,000 grant from the student government to purchase shelving and marketing materials.
University departments ran donation drives to stock the pantry. And when it opened Jan. 31, the pantry's shelves were full.
"It moved really fast, which is amazing because usually, this sort of thing can get stuck," Kurtz said. "... It definitely did teach me that student voices are incredibly important and can do a lot."
Students were responsible for opening a food pantry at Bellarmine University, as well.
Rebecca Broda said she got an idea for the pantry her freshman year after attending an alternative spring break program in Charleston, South Carolina.
Last year, she and a committee of fellow students organized a partnership with Dare to Care Food Bank to stock a food pantry in an administrative wing of the Centro campus center.
"I know a lot of students on this campus that are my friends and co-workers that do not receive adequate nutrition due to running out of meal plans or they simply don't have the money to eat," Broda said. "I know for a lot of students it's tuition or food, and they pay for tuition."
The small, private university charges undergraduate students more than $20,000 in tuition each semester and is not often thought of as having students with need.
But since opening in November, the school's pantry has served 120 individuals, said Natasha Begin, an assistant dean of students who helps oversee the program.
"A significant amount of our students are Pell (Grant) eligible, the highest federal financial aid," Begin said. "... Sometimes we have commuter students holding down two to three part-time jobs to afford rent and utilities. Some are helping with their parents' bills. Grants can cover tuition and the costs to go here, but they don't cover additional expenses that come with just living life."
Begin said Bellarmine and other institutions nationwide have more work to do in supporting students from low-income backgrounds, who can bring diverse experiences and knowledge to the classroom.
"If we want to see them succeed, we need to put more support in place to help them do that," Begin said.
Anna Foshee, director of student leadership and service learning at Spalding University in downtown Louisville, echoed Begin's sentiments.
Foshee is responsible for running the school's Pelican Pantry, which has operated on-and-off for at least five years. The pantry last reopened in 2017 after a Kroger next to Spalding's campus closed, putting more strain on students who couldn't easily access food.
"Everyone is going through something, and it may be tough for them to even get up in the morning and get to class, especially if they don't have food for breakfast or didn't have dinner the night before," Foshee said.
"We want them to stay. We want them to graduate and be successful. It's one of those things that's become more apparent across the nation," she said. "They're spending more money to get an education, and sometimes they have to forfeit other things to do that."