For decades, cash-poor American college students have joked about their “ramen noodles diet” but now more than ever, students say they have to choose between buying food and paying tuition.

A first-of-its-kind federal government report found nearly two million college students are hungry., yet nearly 60-percent of low-income college students who may be eligible for food assistance did not report participating in a program in 2016.

Frankie Becerra is president of the student advocacy group Lead M-N at Century College in White Bear Lake. He works full-time to pay for a college education he feels will help him climb the economic ladder, but wonders how many people know that hunger can hamper success.

“I don’t think that necessarily people would say, ‘Oh no, that doesn’t happen.’ I just don’t think they know the severity of it, and how little resources there are on some campuses because it can be a very embarrassing and demoralizing situation,” he said.

Becerra added that his two-year community and technical college has a food pantry that students can access up to twice a month.

Riverland Community College student Oballa Oballa grew up in Kenyan refugee camps, and said many of the food packages they received were stamped ‘USA.’ As a result, he thought hunger didn’t exist in America but said now, This is not any different than what I’ve been going through in the refugee camp, where I only get one meal for one day or two days and sometimes have to go without it. So, I cry inside. As a young man, I have that stigma whereby I feel ashamed to ask someone else for food.”

Oballa is pursuing a degree in Human Services at Riverland Community College and has been active in bringing a food pantry to his campus. “It’s up and running now and the line never stops – every day, students are lining up and they’re really benefiting from it,” he explained, “So, through that food pantry, my grades went up because I don’t have to focus on food, I’m only focusing on getting up my grade.”

Oballa said the Riverland Community College food pantry now feeds about 400 students a month.