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Food insecurity a daily problem for college students across Oregon

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Hunger on campus. It's a problem college students across Oregon face every day. Many making the choice between buying books, or food. 

In a 2016, a study published by the College and Food Bank University Alliance revealed nearly a quarter of all college students surveyed in the U.S. battle food insecurity. That's the national average. 

On some campuses in Oregon, that percentage is far worse. 

Grecia Garcia runs the food pantry at Chemeketa Community College in Marion County.

"From Marion Polk Food Share, we get weekly about 500 pounds of perishable foods, and that goes within the end of the day I go and get it," said Garcia.

Garcia tells FOX 12 the student need for food is so great, at times it's overwhelming. 

"There's a lack of awareness, I think a lot of people think about the freshman 15 and that college campuses are filled with that amount of food and students can gain weight, but unfortunately for at least 22 percent of our students that's not a reality," said Garcia.

Twenty-two percent of students who say they can't afford to put food on the table. A number that seems like a lot, until you talk to students at Western Oregon University.

"59 percent of our population was food insecure," said Rebecca Hardgrave, director of WOU Food Pantry.

A 2014 OSU report found nearly 60 percent of college students at Western Oregon University were food insecure at one point during the school year. Rising college costs, an increase in low income and first generation students attending school and changing demographic trends are all said to be factors.

Students believe since that report came out, the need on campus has only gone up.

"As we raise awareness about what we're doing, the numbers double and triple, we literally cannot keep food on the shelves," said Hardgrave.

Students Rebecca Hardgrave and Tiffanie Bowles coordinate all efforts at Western's food pantry on campus.

"From February to February we've tracked that we've given out over 19,000 pounds of food, so we're proud of that," said Hardgrave.

Part of the problem in Monmouth specifically, they say, is access to food in general. 

"This area is kind of like a food dessert, there's not a lot of grocery stores," said Hardgrave. 

More than 100 volunteers help keep the pantry open to students here five days a week.

"Since I have used food pantries my whole life, it's really rewarding to see and share that experience with other people. It has worth," said Bowles. 

Together they work to bring in as many big donations as possible. Marion Polk food share is also one of their biggest supporters.

"We have met the needs, but it's something we struggle with every week," said Hardgrave.

Often, Hardgrave says students come in looking for food, not just for themselves but for the family they're getting a degree to support.

"I've seen single moms trying to change their lives and they come here and you know I've heard of these women who go hungry themselves so they can try to get stuff together to feed their kids," Hardgrave said. 

Stories Garcia also hears all too often.

"Many times it really does break my heart knowing that we can only do so much," said Garcia.

Stories that compel her to do everything possible to make sure no one student goes home hungry.

"Students can get up to 8 items here and we know that's not enough, so we try to refer them to other food banks too," said Garcia.

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