It’s Time to Stop Accepting that Food Insecurity is A Normal Part of College

Surviving on ramen noodles isn’t a rite of passage.

“I’m writing about food insecurity on college campuses,” I told my friend Nick.

“Isn’t that just called ‘college’?” he replied.

Nick’s response is understandable. The stereotype of the broke college student subsisting on ramen noodles has worked its way into popular consciousness. (This college even provides recipe hacks on how to make ramen more palatable. Never mind the fact that studies have found that high levels of sodium and preservatives put regular consumers of these prepackaged noodles at greater risk for heart disease.)

I’ve spent the last few months interviewing students on college campuses across the country on their experience with food insecurity, which is related to the availability, affordability, and accessibility of nutritious food. More than one of them have referred to ramen. “Often, there is a stigma that in college you eat ramen noodles and that’s just something you have to go through,” says Frankie Becerra, who studies at University of Minnesota. “It shouldn’t be a reality that some of the brightest minds, those that might come up with a cure for cancer, currently have to live on ramen. They might not be able to articulate that idea because of [their diet].”

Frankie might be onto something. A recent study from University of California Berkeley found that healthier school lunches can improve students’ performances on standardized test scores. It’s the same reason that LeBron James made free breakfast, lunch, and snacks a cornerstone the innovative public elementary school he launched in Akron, Ohio. It’s why Michelle Obama focused her efforts as first lady on healthy food in schools. It’s not too far of a stretch to extrapolate those ideas to college students — better food can lead to better academic performance, something that researchers at Temple University are just starting to investigate.

In September, I attended the RealCollege conference in Philadelphia, built around the work of Sarah Goldrick-Rab. She and her colleagues at Temple’s Hope Center for College, Community and Justice undertook the largest national survey assessing the basic needs security of university students. They found that 36 percent of university students were food insecure in the 30 days preceding the survey. That’s more than one third of all students sitting in our college classrooms.

This is even the case at elite universities. The challenge of addressing the issue of food insecurity at highly selective campuses might be even greater than at open-access institutions as people seeking solutions also have to combat perceptions of “well, that doesn’t happen here.”

Take Anna Sophia Steiglitz, a junior at George Washington University, one of the most expensive schools in the country, as an example. Although she’s received a full-ride scholarship to cover her tuition, she still has trouble paying the bills. “Am I eating breakfast, lunch, or dinner?” she asks. “Because it’s not going to be all three.”

Anna Sophia works three jobs and helps support her mom. “I’m the breadwinner. I make more money than she [my mom] does at this point, and I don’t even make enough to feed myself,” she says.

Colleges are paying more attention to the issue of food insecurity, giving rise to a number of innovative solutions on campuses across the country ranging from food pantries to food scholarships. This is a good start, but there’s a long way to go.

It’s not just about connecting hungry students to food. We need to change institutional and public perceptions that it’s normal to eat noodles for three meals a day. “Healthy food” needs to be part of the equation, as does recognizing that food insecurity impacts students at all types of institutions.

As we sit down today and share our gratitude for friends, family, and feast, it might behoove us to take a moment and remember that same bounty is not available to many of our students the other 364 days a year.

Ramen, anyone?