COVINGTON, Ky. -- Allie Cordray has her sights set on a master's degree in social work and a career helping others.
But first, she has to find a meal for herself and her 2-year-old son who is battling a congenital muscle disease.
Cordray, 19, is a Gateway Community and Technical College student working on an associate degree in human services/social work. A former foster child, she's holding down a job and trying to pull herself out of poverty through higher education.
But like thousands of other college students in Greater Cincinnati, Cordray struggles to find basic necessities while trying to earn her degree.
"It gets overwhelming, but it's the determination I have to finish school and be better that pushes me," she said.
A scientific survey led by the College and University Food Bank Alliance found 48 percent of college students surveyed reported food insecurity in the previous 30 days, including 22 percent with very low levels of food security that qualify them as hungry.
The problem is most acute at community colleges, where 25 percent of students qualified as having very low food security.
This year, Gateway and Cincinnati State both started on-campus food pantries to make the mountain of earning a college degree seem a little easier to surmount for students who don't always have enough to eat.
How to help
Cincinnati State and Gateway Community & Technical College both welcome donations of non-perishable food and toiletries to their food pantries. To donate:
Drop off or mail items at Cincinnati State's main campus, or send monetary donations:
Attn: Casondra Cooper
3520 Central Parkway
Cincinnati, Ohio 45223
Drop off or mail items at Gateway:
Gateway Community and Technical College
Attn: Sarah Young
525 Scott Boulevard
Covington, KY. 41011
The pantry has not yet set up a cash donation mechanism.
"A lot of our students are struggling with housing. They're living in their cars," said Sarah Young, Gateway Community Resource Success coach.
"That's why they can't really afford food. They need transportation, housing. If they do have food, it's usually from a friend," she said.
Both schools discovered that students could benefit from an on-campus pantry to supplement other food assistance or because juggling school, jobs and day care made it difficult to get to off-campus pantries.
Gateway's pantry opened in July and is still ramping up. They're seeking donations from faculty and staff of non-perishable food and also toiletries and laundry detergent.
"There's not much of a selection. If I can build that up more, I'd feel a lot better," Young said.
So far, Gateway's pantry hasn't had very full shelves, but 15 students have used it. She knows many more are out there based on 108 students reporting food shortages this fall.
Young knows from experience that people working hard can still go hungry. She dropped out of high school before earning her GED and building on that momentum to earn bachelor's and master's degrees.
Along the way she needed government subsidies to get by. She tells students to remember hard times are temporary and that there's no shame in accepting help.
"If I can do it, you can do it. I went through the same cycle -- cash assistance, work assistance, and I struggled," Young said.
Cordray was personally inspired by Young, and she's moving forward by accepting help and learning to manage her time.
"I wanted to go to school because I want my own future. I want to get out of poverty, get off government assistance. I want to be independent," she said.
Cordray is working at Gateway as a peer mentor, and she's reaching out to other students trying to get them to accept help to boost their chances of finishing school.
"When you can't provide for yourself, you feel like a failure. You can feed on that and get depressed," she said. "I feel like the more we're able to get, the more we can provide for people who are struggling."
Cincinnati State pantry sees high demand
Cincinnati State's pantry opened Nov. 16 after more than a year of planning.
Laurie Malone co-founded the pantry after watching students she counseled gratefully empty the food bowl on her desk of tangerines and fruit bars.
"I have multiple students who self identify as very hungry. They ask for food or money to buy lunch," she said.
The response from donors has been "overwhelming," she said, allowing Cincinnati State to offer students enough food to last for three days each month.
"Our model run as a student organization is to make sure students are involved," Malone said. "This is about feeding students but also about helping other students develop and grow as students and people. There is great privilege in helping others."
Malone and co-founder Cindy Sefton are working to dispel misconceptions that people who have the means to go to college must not be poor.
"It may seem like college is a privilege, but we're not talking about an elite four-year institution. We're talking about people coming here to get out of poverty," Malone said. "They work part-time jobs, and they're hungry."
Both colleges welcome all students without asking for proof of need, but they also try to direct them to other available help, like federal SNAP food assistance.
Cincinnati State is working on getting designated as an Ohio Benefits Bank, which would allow students to sign up at the college for a wide range of welfare available to them.
For Kelly Schierloh, 42, Cincinnati State's food pantry opened just in time.
She's a double major student pursuing civil engineering/architectural drafting and construction management degrees with the hope of working for Kroger to help design new supermarkets.
Schierloh plans to transfer to University of Cincinnati to pursue bachelor's and master's degrees in construction management.
She now works full time as a nurse assistant while going to school full time, and a change of jobs left her without enough food in the weeks before Thanksgiving.
"I'm trying to work full time and going to school full time and it's killing," she said. "When you get that little bit of help, it's amazing because you don't think anyone is there."
Schierloh has grown children and wants to use her degrees and a career at Kroger to boost her income, travel the world and make sure she can take care of herself and not be a burden on her children.
Cincinnati State teachers and staff have been wonderful, she said, and have lifted her up.
"You don't feel like anyone is there, and then when you see somebody come in and tell you we've got food. You think nobody is there, and there she was," she said.