MNSU faces growing number of food-insecure international students

Maria Ly
Staff Writer

The students no one suspects is facing food insecurity are international students. One student at Minnesota State University, Mankato, Pooja Gurung, feels like this is due to the wide stereotype that international students are rich and well-off.

Gurung said, “Their parents are probably taking loans to send them to school here, which is what my mom is doing, so when it comes to things like that you don’t have the capacity to tell your parents to send you more money because they’re already paying a lot for your tuition.”

In a study done by the 2018 Sociology in Action class found that two-thirds of students face food insecurity in some way. Most students surveyed who claimed they faced food insecurity were students of color.

Most of these students of color are international students.

Gurung is from Nepal, a developing country, and grew up in a poor family. Most often they didn’t have the money to get the food they needed.

 “Sometimes for food my mom and I will play a game of who can find the most coins. So we would open up all of our cupboards and find coins and stack it up and buy milk,” said Gurung.

They even struggled to buy gas for their stove and sometimes wasn’t able to properly cook a meal.

“We used the rice cooker to boil milk and cook everything and that’s what we used to do because we didn’t have money for gas,” said Gurung.

When she was older she was sent by her mom to study in America as jobs in her country are very limited. Her mom would take out loans for her to get an American education. This food insecurity her family faced when she was in Nepal carried over with her when she started college.

Gurung said, “I have suffered from bouts of food insecurity during times when family couldn’t send me the money that I need to get by. I had other financial obligations at school to take care of which meant I didn’t have enough leftover money in my budget to buy food for myself.”

She tried really hard to budget the very little money she had and bought things that were unhealthy such as a dollar ramen. She would stretch out this food across many days.

When asked what her lowest point was, she said, “I had $7 and I had to stretch it out for two weeks and that’s when I went to all of the free events on campus with free snacks and free food.”

Gurung at this time, would take advantage of every resource she could. She went to the Campus Kitchen for their peanut butter sandwiches. She would go to the one buck lunches at the Crossroads Church.

Her experience, however, is not unique. “I feel like all international students in some way or some form suffer from food insecurity now and then, unless you are from a well-off family, and this just doesn’t apply to international students,” said Gurung.

With the cultural contribution scholarship, international students spend an average of $4,590 a semester on tuition. This can be a barrier for some students whose families are unable to give them more than the cost of tuition as they struggle to pay for the cost of living.

Stephanie Gonzalez, the assistant director of the Kearney Center for International Student Services, said, “I think students come with optimism and it’s hard to know what are you going to face when you’re here maybe the cost of living is higher than you thought or so the cabin with their families and they’re not able to get the support that they need.”

One of the issues of international students facing food insecurity is the policy where they are only allowed to work 20 hours a week.

Gonzalez said, “Because of immigration. international students are limited to working on campus, so that’s where the university is the one paying them and there’s no self-employment. A lot of our students work at dining services, there’s a lot with the CSU Ops,  just really wherever they can find something on campus. That’s just a federal regulation that all international students need to follow.”

Although they are allowed to work 20 hours, this may not be enough for students especially with the cost of rent, health insurance, gas, cars and other bills.

Gurung said, “Even with working you’re not able to work more than 20 hours a week so it’s not enough to make due. It’s exactly enough for rent and limited amount of groceries and I think that’s why a lot of international students suffer from food insecurity because they’re already from not well-off places.”

Being an international student and getting funding for your education and your basic living needs can be difficult as many unexpected roadblocks can occur. Roadblocks like currency changes.

“Sometimes countries’ currencies can change drastically while the student is here and so that can reduce the amount of funding they have based on the exchange rate and that’s something that you won’t think about necessarily,” said Gonzalez. 

International students are also not qualified for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, a program that helps people facing food insecurity by giving them food stamp benefits.

However, resources like the ECHO food shelf, Campus Kitchen, Campus Cupboard and other community food resources are available for international students.

Despite these resources, there are many ways that the university and offices like the Kearney Center for International Student Services can do to help international students facing food insecurity. Gurung suggests the first step is to acknowledge that food insecurity is a problem within the international student population.

She said, “Everyone assumes that we have money just because we’re international students, that’s not true. A lot of us struggle a lot so I think the first step is to acknowledge and admit that yes we do have food insecurity problem amongst International students and yes we can work on it.”

She also suggests to bring more awareness about resources and provide resources to help all students, including international students.

Although she wishes her financial circumstances would’ve been different growing up and in college, Gurung said, “At this point, it’s whatever. It’s a part of me now.”

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