Researchers from Wisconsin HOPE Lab and Temple University published a groundbreaking report last year examining studies of food insecurity on college campuses with disturbing results — approximately 36 percent of college students are food insecure. Responding to this growing epidemic, educational institutions across the nation are opening student food pantries. Others are still unwilling to admit there is a problem.
So, what is food insecurity?
The USDA defines food insecurity as “a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.”
The USDA module provided the measurement standards by which the Wisconsin HOPE Lab team conducted their research.
Administrators are working to provide support for the thousands of students whose ballooning educational costs serve as an obstacle to purchasing necessities like food. Unfortunately, even campus meal plans are not meeting the needs of students. The National Student Campaign Against Hunger & Homelessness (NSCAHH) reported 43 percent of students with meal plans still experience food insecurity.
“In college, I went hungry or struggled severely to get food because I had to pay my expenses,” said Coe alum Berlin Mendez (‘17). “I had three different jobs at the college, but they were all going toward my tuition automatically until they were completely covered. So I didn’t have any income. I got by attending a lot of club meeting and going at the end and taking whatever food was left. I would make meals out of, like, leftover cookies from chemistry club.”
In February 2018, Coe College sent an all-student email with a Google Form entitled “Student Hunger Micro Survey.” A product of a faculty and staff committee dedicated to “support, persistence, and achievement”, the survey sought to determine the impact of food insecurity on Coe’s campus.
Tom Hicks, Dean of Students and member of this group, said they, “started to explore the installation of a food pantry on campus. From the information collected, it showed that there are at least a small number of students affected by food insecurity issues… [We] will take that into consideration when making future decisions.”
Director of Health and Wellness Emily Barnard, who also serves as one of two counselors on campus, stated in an email, “There is also a lot of activity around this topic nationally right now [at] both the higher ed. level as well as K-12.”
Indeed, the Internet is abuzz with articles on the national and local level about college students facing hunger and how their institutions are responding. Houston Public Media reported that the Houston Food Bank provides six colleges and universities with bimonthly food donations to student markets, including Texas Women’s University, San Jacinto Community College, and the University of Houston-Downtown. Instead of calling the programs food banks or charities, Houston Food Bank refers to them as “food scholarships.”
“The reason that we call it a food scholarship is because we’re looking to tie this to outcomes,” said Harry Hadland of the Houston Food Bank.
Outcomes are critical for students facing hunger as they pursue higher education. Findings from the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AACU) state students facing hunger report that food insecurity affects their academics at the alarming rate of 81 percent. Over half of these students missed class or did not purchase textbooks as a result. A quarter dropped a class. According to NPR, food insecure students’ grades suffer, their test scores are likely to be lower than average, and ultimately they are less likely to graduate.
“We want students to have enough food,” said Melea White, chaplain, counselor, and member of the Coe College committee that produced the microsurvey. “We know that lack of nutrition has many implications, including suffering academic performance.”
This dismal picture is not just affecting students from low-income backgrounds, either. The inflation of college tuition and related expenses is a large burden for middle class families as well.
Sara Goldrick-Rab, the lead author of the Wisconsin HOPE Lab report, said middle class students “wouldn’t be going through these issues if they weren’t in college” as “their resources pale in comparison to those high college prices.”
According to the AACU, people of color, community college students, and first-generation students are most likely to be food insecure. Over half of all students who fall under one or more of those categories are food insecure. By comparison, white students, those who attend 4-year colleges, and students with college-educated parents fall around 40 percent.
“One of the biggest stressors I have in college is financial problems and everything revolves around that,” said Coe College student Ayana Schaffer (‘21).
56 percent of food insecure students hold a paying job, with 38 percent working 20 or more hours per week, according to the NSCAHH.
“We see food-insecure students devote as much time to school and homework as other students, but they also work longer hours and get less sleep,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab in the Chicago Tribune.
President Anne Kress of Monroe Community College in Rochester, NY, said, “A lot of [students] are living in a very narrow margin between financial security and insecurity. What’s going to connect them to financial security is a college degree.”
Faced with this troubling issue, institutions may wonder what they can do when budgets are tight for both sides of the equation. One place to start is what North Carolina State University and Coe College did in conducting campus surveys. NC State started the Food and Housing Security Among NC State Students initiative as a result just yesterday.
The NSCAHH urges colleges to pursue a “creative” variety of options. This may take the form of campus food pantries, community gardens to provide fresh produce, and coordinated benefits access programs. Monroe Community College operates a food wagon that distributes directions to the food pantry on granola bars labels. The free snack also leads the way to Single Stop, an organization that assists students applying for government benefits such as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), housing and childcare.
The student-run Michigan State University Student Food Bank was the first campus-based food assistance program in the nation when its student founders began their operation of “Students Helping Students” in 1993. Today, it serves more 4,000 students and their families every year. The MSU Food Bank is a registered student organization and, like most food pantries, operates on charitable donations.
Some policymakers have begun to address food insecurity. In 2017, California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) approved $7.5 million in allocations to creating food pantries as well as assisting with access to public benefits programs. This year, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) introduced a $1 million proposal in his State of the State report to mandate food pantries on all public college campuses, or provide a “stigma-free” alternative.
“I felt embarrassed when people got worried, like I was bothering someone else,” said Berlin Mendez. “I remember a fellow student saw me rummaging through the trash can. He gave me some leftover noodles he didn’t want anymore. I was very appreciative, but it feels embarrassing to be caught in the act of trying to find some food.”
For now, food pantries seem to be the go-to option, as they proliferate on campuses across the nation. As with most significant change, it starts locally.
As Melea White said, “Nourished students means successful students.”