Utah Valley University began a new $60,000 emergency scholarship fund this semester to help struggling students pay for food, rent, medical bills or other emergency necessities.

A third of the money already has been spent.

“This isn’t just a random student who, all their basic needs are met,” said Associate Vice President and Dean of Students Alexis Palmer. “We are talking about our students who are experiencing basic needs insecurities, and, because of that, they can’t function in the classroom.”

Students can receive anywhere from $50 to $500, and the average payout is about $250. The money was earmarked after UVU created a task force to help students secure the basic resources they need to graduate, Palmer said.

Task force members looked at a spring 2018 survey of 969 students, and learned that 10% said they didn’t have enough food to eat and 36% said they don’t have enough money for food. The commuter school does not offer meal plans or housing.

About 185 students said they don’t have a stable or secure place to sleep at night, and 12.6% said they were at “immediate risk” of losing their housing because of rent or safety concerns. The survey’s margin of error was plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

Students fill out an application to get one of the new emergency scholarships, and Palmer said payouts are based on need, as determined by a rubric. Students might have medical bills that are so expensive they can’t pay rent and afford groceries, for example. These scholarships are meant to bridge that gap.

The challenges UVU students face are not uncommon. Nearly half — 48% — of students had experienced food insecurity in the preceding 30 days, according to a 2016 survey of students at community and four-year colleges across 12 states.

About 1 in 5 (20%) of four-year college students qualified as having “very low food security,” according to the poll, sponsored by the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness and three other student advocacy groups.

The survey also found that food insecurity was more likely to impact students of color and first-generation college students.

The University of Utah and Utah State University have been running programs similar to UVU’s emergency scholarship fund for several years.

The U.'s emergency funding is available to students through several organizations on campus, such as the Women’s Resource Center, the LGBT Resource Center and TRiO programs, which are federal programs for disadvantaged students. The school also has operated a campus food bank that offers groceries and hygiene products for the past five years, according to Dean of Students Brian Burton.

Burton said he’s found that students are most in need at the beginning of the semester, when there are many upfront costs, such as tuition and books.

Since the semester started, Burton said, the U.'s Women’s Resource Center — which serves all genders — has alone given out $17,000 to students for emergency necessities. He said the U.'s student government also gives out small loans, up to $250, for students.

Utah State University has offered what it calls emergency hardship grants since 2012, a few years after a student government president brought the issue of student food and and housing insecurity to administrators.

The school has given around $290,000 to about 150 students, Vice President for Student Affairs James Morales said. Students receive about $1,900 a year, on average. At one time, the funds were allocated from the university’s general budget, but now the university solicits donations.

He said students who receive those grants are going through a range of issues and already have tapped other possible resources, like asking their families or church for help.

As one example, he said, they may get a grant “if they’ve suffered health issues themselves and they weren’t prepared to meet medical expenses that came up suddenly.” He added: “Sometimes they were in an accident and lost their primary means to get to a job, like a car. So they had some repairs maybe that needed to be made, and they just couldn’t afford it.”

USU also has a food pantry and has started food recovery programs, which give students groceries and prepared meals that were unused in campus restaurants. Students have used the food pantry nearly 5,000 times this year alone, Morales said.

He said he’s noticed more students are using the food pantry, as well as other campus resources, like mental health services. He attributes that in part to awareness that they’re available and that people are less embarrassed to ask for help.

“It’s about decreasing stigma. You don’t have to be hungry,” he said. “Go get some food.”

At UVU, the emergency fund is a continuation of the university’s other efforts to help students in need, Palmer said. The university has run a food pantry for a decade and provides students vouchers to buy a hot meal on campus.

The university is remodeling its food pantry to hold more items, like perishable fruits and vegetables, in addition to adding a freezer for meat. She said the university is also looking into adding community gardens and working with food vendors on campus to distribute food that isn’t being used.

The new task UVU force, Coordinated Access to Resources and Education, or CARE, focuses on alleviating housing and food insecurity, in addition to promoting safety and health. UVU students who want to apply for the emergency scholarships can email Palmer at palmeral@uvu.edu. Those interested in donating to the fund can visit uvu.edu/give/?dids=wsc-emergency.

Correction: 3:02 p.m., Oct. 9, 2019 • An earlier version of this story misstated when Utah Valley University's emergency scholarship program began. It started in fall 2019.