Surviving on food stamps at IUP

IUP student Coby C. Brubaker. Photo by Ida Arici

By Marissa E. Young

INDIANA – Whenever Coby C. Brubaker, 23, a senior psychology major, steps into one of the on-campus dining facilities at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, his first thought isn’t about food. It’s about money.

Like many college students, he doesn’t have a lot of it. But Brubaker’s stretched finances are notable for a couple of reasons:

He can’t afford a campus meal plan. And he survives on food stamps.

In 2007, Brubaker said, he applied for assistance from the federal program run by the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare that helps low-income people buy food. His application was approved.

Now, every month Brubaker receives what looks like a green debit card – an “access card” — from the state welfare agency. The card gives him $200 to buy groceries, Brubaker said. He spends it in two to three weeks.

Brubaker said his finances began to fray when he moved off-campus to Copper Beech Townhomes in 2007 following his freshman year. The rent was cheaper, he could have his own room, and he could live with friends.

But utility costs — for gas, water, electricity, cable and internet — soared, he said. He began to run out of money fast.

“A friend who saw me struggling with my rent and bills told me about applying for food stamps,” Brubaker said in a Nov. 25 interview. “That same friend would always offer me a portion of her meal, because sometimes I wouldn’t have anything to eat for lunch.”

Brubaker is one of 220 undergraduate students in Indiana County who received food stamps in October 2010, Margaret Desiderio, executive director of the Indiana County Assistance Office, said in a Nov. 10 phone interview. Of the county’s 9,574 food-stamp recipients that month, they represented 2.3 percent of the total.

The assistance office requires Brubaker to provide documentation of his tuition costs, rent and utilities each semester.  Brubaker says his food assistance supplements a part-time paycheck.

He works 12-13 hours a week in the IUP Office of Admissions in the transfer services office. His pay is $7.25 an hour — minimum wage in Pennsylvania. Still, Brubaker said, he can’t afford the food that IUP contracts with Aramark Corp. to provide.

“Using food stamps isn’t my favorite part of my college experience,” Brubaker said. “But in order to pay all my bills with my paychecks, there isn’t a lot of money left for food.”



On Nov. 8, IUP Food Service Director Mark Edgar said by phone that he was not permitted to answer questions. He directed all queries to the Aramark corporate office in Philadelphia. A Dec. 2 phone message left for Julie Welsh, senior marketing manager, was not returned.

IUP Housing and Residence Life Director Michael said he was disturbed by Brubaker’s reliance on food stamps.

“What bothers me the most is feeling that he hasn’t tried to let us help him,” Lemasters said in a Nov. 2 interview in his office in Ruddock Hall. “There are a whole lot of people here specifically that can help maximize use of what he has.”

Brubaker said he is scheduled to graduate in spring 2011, four years after he began receiving food stamps.

“I have yet to hear from Lemasters and the people he claims that want to help me,” Brubaker said. “Perhaps before graduation I will get word of what they can do to help someone in my situation.”

Marissa E. Young, a senior journalism major at IUP, is from Clearfield, Pa.


Sidebar: Food pricing at IUP

Aramark Corp., the on-campus dining contractor, and the IUP Office of Housing and Residence Life, together set food prices at IUP dining halls, said Housing and Residence Life Director Michael Lemasters. The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education starts the process.

Every summer, Lemasters said in a Nov. 2 interview in his office in Ruddock Hall, a food consultant for PaSSHE submits a list of all Aramark prices for food items that are available in the dining facilities and the convenience stores at IUP. OHRL looks over the food prices and sets dining prices accordingly, Lemasters said.

Increases in food prices are based on the federal Consumer Price Index — specifically, its food-away-from-home category, Lemasters said.

The CPI produces monthly data on changes in prices paid by consumers for a representative basket of goods and services, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In November, the food-away-from-home category saw prices rise 1.3 percent over the preceding 12-month period. Since the mid-1980s, the category has seen price rises by more than 50 percent.

By Marissa Young


Sidebar: Meal budgeting at IUP

Foster Dining Hall is an example of a place that caters to IUP students who use meal plans. With a swipe of a campus-issued I-card, the cost of each meal is covered.

But students like senior psychology major Coby C. Brubaker rarely have enough pocket change to cover the cost of even one meal at Foster.

“I eat at Foster two to three times a semester,” Brubaker said in a Nov. 25 phone interview. “When I have to work on Saturdays giving campus tours for incoming students, I am given a free meal pass to eat. This is the only time I can afford to eat at Foster.”

For a student with a meal plan, each swipe of an I-card is deducts $4.74 at any time of day, according to the IUP Campus Dish website.

One meal plan offered for off-campus students costs $748 a semester and consists of 75 meals per semester, according to the IUP Dining website. The per-meal price is $9.97, about double the rate for on-campus student-plan meals.

But the off-campus meal plan wouldn’t work for Brubaker, he said. It would cost him his refund, which is issued from the IUP Bursar, because he borrows more money than needed to pay his tuition.

His refund has varied from $2,000 to $4,000 over the past three years, Brubaker said. He must use his refund to pay for his rent, utilities and books.

By Marissa Young


Sidebar: For more info

For more information on this story, contact the following sources:

Michael Lemasters
Associate Dean of Students
Director of Housing and Residence Life
B37 Ruddock Hall
Indiana University of Pennsylvania
Indiana, Pa.  15705
Phone: 724-357-2626.

Mark Edgar
Director, Food Service
Foster Dining Hall
Indiana University of Pennsylvania
Indiana, Pa.  15705
Phone: 724-357-5711

Margaret Desiderio
Executive director
Indiana County Assistance Office
2750 W. Pike Road
Indiana, Pa.  15701-9717
Phone: 724-357-2900

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