Students at Virginia State University can be sure of getting their next meal regardless of their finances

ETTRICK — For many college students, the thirst for knowledge is accompanied by real, physical hunger. Now, thanks to a partnership with grocery chain Food Lion, students at Virginia State University can be sure of getting their next meal regardless of their finances.

VSU officials and Food Lion representatives gathered Friday at the university's Gateway Residential Hall for a ribbon-cutting ceremony to mark the opening of the new campus food pantry, where students with limited funds will find a variety of healthy foods to help get them through all-nighter study sessions or just through an average day.

"This is an important issue. It's an education issue," said VSU President Makola M. Abdullah. The pantry will help the school fulfill its "Number One job ... to make sure students graduate."

Benny L. Smith, Food Lion's manager of media and community relations, explained that the Salisbury, N.C.-based company has been working with universities in the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association for many years, and has previously opened food pantries at three in North Carolina – Winston Salem University in Winston-Salem, Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte and Livingstone College in Salisbury.

Smith said some people might be surprised to learn that many college students face hunger, but they shouldn't be. "Hunger is me, hunger is you," he said, adding that his own father had turned to a food bank for help feeding his family during a difficult time.

Food Lion, Smith said, through its Food Lion Feeds program, has a goal of donating 500 million meals by 2020. "We're at 275 million now," he noted. In addition to the food pantry at VSU, he said, the program will be donating items to other local food banks.

Lativia Boone, VSU's vice president of student success and engagement, said the problem of food insecurity on college campuses is more widespread than many people are award.

A study published last year by the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness found that 48 percent of college students reported food insecurity in the previous 30 days, including 22 percent with very low levels of food security. Among African American students, 57 percent reported food insecurity compared with 40 percent of white non-Hispanic students.

While hunger is obviously a problem in itself, it can also have a negative effect on students' academic performance. Among the study participants who reported food insecurity, 32 percent said they believed hunger or housing problems had affected their eduction. Within that group, 55 percent said those problems caused them not to buy a required textbook, 53 percent reported missing classes and 25 percent reported dropping a class.

• Michael Buettner may be reached at mbuettner@progress-index.com or 804-722-5155.