My college sophomore called me last week to tell me he ran out of swipes on his meal plan card, and asked what food should he buy with the $40 he had left in his checking account. He has a part time job and uses his own paycheck quite frequently to feed himself in lieu of meal swipes- because he’s aware of how much more expensive eating a meal on the campus meal plan is versus having a package of vending machine crackers (And he tries to save and ration those pricier swipes).
Meanwhile, around the corner from his dorm is the campus food pantry where hungry cash strapped students are freely shopping the pantry’s shelves right now. The same shelves that are fully stocked today, but will be totally emptied within three days.
What both of these situations have in common is what’s called “food insecurity,” which the USDA has defined as “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods.” Ironically when we think of hunger across society, we tend to picture the most vulnerable among us- those living in true poverty, or the homeless. What we don’t picture are middle class (and even affluent) college students doing things like skipping meals, saving meal swipes, or living off rice and Ramen noodles for weeks on end because their budgets (or lack thereof) have dictated so.
These are students from families from all different types of backgrounds- some receiving federal financial aid but still not enough to cover the high cost of campus housing and meal plans, and some from families that didn’t qualify for any financial assistance, but are still unable to cover the rising costs of tuition and living expenses with their middle class incomes.
Food insecurity, as well as housing insecurity (worried about having enough money to cover things like rent and utilities from month to month) is an increasingly growing problem across our college campuses. And thanks to a recent research survey done to see just how big of an issue it really is (and in what ways it’s affecting our students), we now know it’s a problem that drastically needs our attention.
Our college kids are hungry, and we need to start doing something about it.
The study is titled “Still Hungry and Homeless in College” and was conducted by the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, and spearheaded by Temple University sociologist and professor of higher education policy Sara Goldrick-Rab. It’s the first of its kind to include both community college and four- year universities. Goldrick-Rab’s previous research into college hunger focused primarily on community college students, where food insecurity was more common because of the traditionally lower income demographic there. It’s also the largest national survey to date that specifically assesses basic needs securities (both food and housing) of university students.
So what did the study find, how is it affecting students, and how are colleges beginning to tackle this widespread problem? Data from the study suggests that….
36% of students surveyed were food insecure at one point in the 30 days preceding the survey. (Meaning almost four out of every ten kids you see walking across campus is probably wondering/worrying/thinking at some point about how and what (if anything) they’re going to eat today.)
The same amount, 36%, were also housing insecure, with most reporting they were having trouble paying utility bills full, or were paying less rent than what they owed. And even more shocking is the fact 9% percent of university students and 12% of community college students reported being homeless at one point in the previous year. (Meaning they had days where they didn’t know where they were going to sleep at night- due to things like rental lease changes, intermittent dorm closings, lack of funds to secure new apartment.)
It should come as no surprise that students who are hungry and worried about paying bills (or both) are also struggling academically. Other studies have already shown this to be true, and the HOPE Lab stated that “food insecurity is correlated with lower grades in college, and housing insecurity has a strong, statistically significant relationship with completion, persistence and credit attainment. Other researchers have found associations between basic needs insecurity and poorer self-reported physical health, symptoms of depression, and higher perceived stress.”
The good news is that many universities are now well aware of this growing problems, and are actually doing something about it. Free food pantries are popping up all over college campuses, and the stigma surrounding their use seems to be a non-issue. Many colleges have smartly decided to not require students to show a student I.D. to take food from the pantry, reducing any chance for the student to feel shamed, embarrassed, or identified in any way as “needy.”
Many colleges are also joining the College and University Food Bank Alliance, which when created in 2012 had only 15 member colleges, but now has over 400. Because the federal government has been unable to successfully address campus hunger issues (tuition and loan issues go to an Education Committee, hunger issues to the Committee on Agriculture, and they’re not communicating) colleges are taking it upon themselves to begin the tackle the problem, hence the huge increase in food banks on campuses that are getting support from their own local communities and alumni.
Want to help end campus hunger?
Contact your student’s college or your own college alumni association, and ask how you can donate to their food bank. Some even allow you to send boxes of food to their food bank from online retailers such as Amazon’s Prime Pantry.
And if they don’t have a campus food pantry yet, well then you really know what you need to do then. Help start one.
Melissa Fenton is a freelance writer and adjunct librarian at Pasco-Hernando State College. Find her writing all over the internet, but her work mostly on the dinner table. She is on Facebook at 4BoysMother and on twitter at @melissarunsaway.