Just blocks from the University of Washington, a line of people shuffle toward a food pantry, awaiting handouts such as milk and bread.
For years, the small University District pantry has offered help to the working poor and single parents in this neighborhood of campus rentals. Now rising food prices are bringing another group: struggling college students.
“Right now, with things the way they are, a lot of students just can't afford to eat,” said Terry Capleton, who started a Facebook group called “I Ain't Afraid to be on Food Stamps” when he was a student at Benedict College in South Carolina.
Some students are working their way through college with grants, loans and part-time jobs. Others are reluctant to ask parents for more money.
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“More and more, it's just the typical traditional student, about 18 to 22, that's feeling this crunch,” said Larry Brickner-Wood, director of the Cornucopia Food Pantry at the University of New Hampshire.
“There's definitely been an increase in usage and demand. We're seeing more and more students that have never used the pantry before.”
In the past year, the price of groceries has jumped nearly 5 percent, the highest increase in nearly two decades. The cost of some staples has shot up by more than 30 percent.
At the University District pantry, demand has risen roughly 25 percent this year. About 150 students visit each week during the school year.
Membership in Capleton's Facebook group has steadily climbed, too, and sparked other online groups with names such as “I'm in College and I got on Food Stamps.”
“A lot of students can't call their mom every day to ask for that extra 50 dollars,” said Capleton, 24. “They're on their own.”
Qualifying for aid at community food banks is usually easy. Most charities just require users to show identification proving they live nearby.
The Community College of Denver runs its own food-assistance program, which has seen demand double in the past year.
“It's the highest I've ever seen,” said Jerry Mason, the school's director of student life. “Our assumption is it's because of the high price of food.”
In response to demand, the school doubled the pantry's $3,000 annual budget.
Food stamps are distributed through a Department of Agriculture program administered by the states. The agency doesn't track whether applicants are enrolled in college, so the number of students is unknown.
Students usually are eligible for food stamps if they qualify for a state or federally funded work-study program; work at least 20 hours per week; have a child under the age of 12; or are taking employer-sponsored job training classes.
Deirdre Wilson, a junior at Francis Marion University in Florence, S.C., applied for food stamps in November because her paycheck from a work-study job didn't cover her expanding grocery bill.
“Before, when I lived in the dorms, I was on the meal plan,” the 20-year-old said. “Now that I'm in the apartment, I have to pay for food, and I have to pay my cell phone bill. I don't make enough to pay for both.”
Standing outside a campus market in Seattle, University of Washington junior Doug McManaway wonders how he will afford to pay for groceries through the summer term.
With just $100 left to last him through the end of the month, the 20-year-old said a food bank might be his best option.
“It kind of grosses me out,” McManaway said. “But if my parents say, ‘No, we're not going to give you any more money,' it may be a last resort.”