Sara Goldrick-Rab

Sara Goldrick-Rab, professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple University.

Scenes of her daily 5 a.m. wakeup call and 100-minute commute to school introduce college junior Shaquara as the fourth primary character in "Hungry to Learn," a documentary chronicling food insecurity and hunger across college campuses.

The nutrition major then walks into a lecture hall in the Bronx's Lehman College to attend a talk, “Addressing Students’ Basic Needs,” by Sara Goldrick-Rab, professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple University. After the event, Shaquara finds herself face-to-face with Goldrick-Rab and shares that she is homeless, as the documentary weaves together strands of personal narrative with years of academic expertise within a single scene.

Goldrick-Rab, who spearheaded research about college accessibility as founder of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s HOPE Lab, responds, “Has anyone offered you any help?” Then, pinpointing what may be the crux of her years-long commitment to college students, she goes on: “The problem is you won’t get the help you need until you tell somebody almost every day. You have to keep telling them.”

“It’s so interesting to see yourself, because you don’t normally get to watch yourself,” Goldrick-Lab said about watching the film. “One of the things that I’ve just personally loved … is there are some candid conversations that I had with students that they filmed me doing. I didn’t really realize the camera was on.”

"Hungry to Learn," produced by Soledad O’Brien Productions, screened this month at the DOC NYC documentary film festival to about 600 people. Along with the stories of Shaquara and three other college students who often don’t know where their next meal is coming from, the film features Goldrick-Rab’s work as director of the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice in Philadelphia.

Goldrick-Rab left UW-Madison in 2016 but continued working remotely with the HOPE Lab, which closed after five years of funding in 2018. Two years later, she opened the Hope Center. She is also a chief strategy officer at Edquity, an app focused on improving education accessibility for students.

The documentary team reached out to Goldrick-Rab in early 2018 after repeatedly coming across her work while researching hunger on college campuses. Producer Rose Arce said she was easy to work with, not only because she is “extremely smart and savvy and a terrific advocate,” but because she provided a natural narrative arc.

“It’s her quest for answers and solutions that is what drives the narrative,” Arce said. “We were following a trajectory that we had from someone who was searching for and finding answers and also organizing around the issue. It had sort of a natural path to it.”

One of Goldrick-Rab’s biggest solutions to combating hunger is #RealCollege, an annual conference that began in 2016 in Milwaukee. Its name represents the idea that “it was time to stop being polite and start getting real” about issues in higher education, she said.

It is at this conference that Shaquara shares her personal story about homelessness and education in the documentary.  She“takes the private and makes it public,” Arce said.

"Hungry to Learn" aims to do just that: make known a problem largely rooted in silence and shame. About 45% of college students are regularly going hungry, but few really talk about it.

Eve, an acting major at Montclair State University, gathers food from a campus food pantry while describing the difficulty in socializing with friends who have money to spare.

“They’re like, ‘You never hang out with us,’” Eve says. “It’s definitely embarrassing, but I can’t be going out to the bar or going out to eat. I just can’t do that.”

Food pantries are a common location throughout the film and undeniably a major resource for struggling students. At Montclair, the pantry’s initial opening was an emotional and eye-opening experience for Fatima deCarvalho, associate dean of students.

“We had students who would come in and break down crying, because they didn’t know where their meal was gonna come from,” deCarvalho says in the documentary. “When we’re talking about food insecurity, we’re talking about poverty.”

But, for Goldrick-Rab, that’s not where the story ends. Food pantries have never ended nor prevented hunger, she said, and Hungry to Learn is proof of what can happen when a research center focuses on “not just discovering an issue, but really working to create change.”

At the Hope Center, she has prioritized bringing in practitioners and policy experts, marking a shift from the dominance of researchers at the HOPE Lab. It’s difficult to work at a smaller institution and “live day in and day out the real defunding of higher education,” she said, but she feels she has found a home at Temple — and in Pennsylvania, where she received her sociology Ph.D — in a place that feels aligned with her work. 

“A lot of stories about campus food insecurity end with, ‘And now we have a campus food pantry,’” Goldrick-Rab said. “This documentary does not do that. This documentary talks about the importance of structural change, and it shows why it’s so hard for colleges to do this work.”

Sign up for Cap Times newsletters: