We Need to Address Food Insecurity for College Students in America

By Katherine Lemus, administrative assistant for field and policy

Unfortunately, the story of the starving college student has become all too common on campuses across the United States.

Today, being a starving college student has become somewhat of a rite of passage. As a first-generation college student with a single immigrant parent, I was raised with the understanding that going to college was a privilege. And while I was incredibly grateful to have the opportunity to attend the University of California, Irvine, I knew that my financial situation was different than many of my fellow students. In order to pay for basic needs (including dining and housing) that aren’t covered by financial aid, it was imperative that I followed a strict budget or I would be in trouble. I’m fortunate to be able to say that there were only a few days that I went hungry in college. But cutting the size of or skipping meals, attending events to get a free meal, and buying the traditional 24-pack of Cup Noodles soups at the beginning of the academic quarter was normal behavior for me and many of my fellow students.

Food insecurity is defined as the limited or uncertain ability to obtain nutritionally adequate food due to lack of financial resources, which can result in disrupted eating patterns and/or reduced food intake. In 2015, when my campus first opened a food pantry to tackle food insecurity – a term I had never heard before – I realized that what I had considered “normal” was not necessarily healthy behavior. At that point, I observed that food insecurity was an issue that many college students experienced. Factors contributing to food insecurity on college campuses today are complex and include the rising cost of earning a degree as well as the increased enrollment of low-income students and students of color – many of whom rely on financial aid to afford college, as I did. That same year, a survey as part of the UC Global Food Initiative found that 40 percent of students experienced food insecurity across the 10 University of California campuses. A more expansive April 2018 study conducted by Wisconsin’s HOPE Lab of 66 institutions across 20 states explored how food insecurity has become rampant in colleges and universities across the country. The study found that 36 percent of students were food insecure, and that’s a conservative finding.

Food insecurity on college campuses disproportionately impacts students of color and low-income students. According to the study by Wisconsin’s HOPE Lab, 47 percent of Black students and 42 percent of Hispanic students at 4-year institutions experience food insecurity compared to 30 percent of their White peers. The study also shows that 46 percent of Pell Grant recipients at 4-year institutions experience food insecurity.

When you don’t have access to three regular meals each day, you have to learn to improvise to make sure you get enough to eat. When I was at Irvine, I worked as a teaching assistant at the university’s early childhood education center. At one point, the center began to provide a free food program for the children. Many of the students who were working there, including me, wanted to make sure we worked during the lunch shift, because it meant we would eat lunch that day. It also allowed teaching assistants to model healthy eating by partaking in the community style lunch provided for everyone. Ironically, that food program intended to help address food insecurity for the children at the center also meant that my student peers and I were provided the opportunity to practice healthy eating habits – an opportunity we might not have had otherwise.

Given that food insecurity affects over one-third of college students, institutions of higher education and the federal government should work together to develop policy solutions that address this systemic problem. At the university level, some institutions have taken steps like opening food pantries that provide nutritious food, allocating emergency funding to assist students, and participating in “Swipe Out Hunger” programs that allow students to donate extra money on their meal plans to students in need. Still, students on college campuses frequently struggle to access proper nutrition.

Constructive federal policies could expand public assistance programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), provide free and/or reduced-cost meals to college students, and reevaluate the assessment of financial need for students to include the full costs of attending school, including food. Public assistance programs like SNAP have been critical in addressing food insecurity for various communities. However, certain sections of the population face significant barriers when trying to access these programs. SNAP, in particular, requires Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents (ABAWD) – a category that most college students fall into – to work at least 20 hours per week to receive benefits and/or subject these individuals to a three-month time limit in three years if they don’t meet the work requirement. According to the USDA, “Most able-bodied students ages 18 through 49 who are enrolled in college or other institutions of higher education at least half time are not eligible for SNAP benefits.” Though the federal work-study program creates an exemption opportunity, students may still face barriers to enrollment in SNAP. Not every school participates in the work-study program. And where schools do have work-study programs, jobs are often limited and not guaranteed from year to year. Even when students are able to meet these work requirements while balancing their academic schedules, university policies often limit work-study to 20 hours per week in acknowledgement of the fact that a student’s primary goal at the university is to acquire a degree.

We also need additional research and data on food insecurity and college students. Given that the HOPE Lab study is not only the first of its kind but was compiled through self-reported student data, it is likely that food insecurity is more prevalent than the data show. Therefore, it is essential that more research about the depth and breadth of food insecurity among college students is conducted. There also has yet to be extensive research on the effects of food insecurity for college students. Some of the challenges they face because of food insecurity include difficulty concentrating and worsened academic performance. Although student academic success is important, the adverse health effects of chronic stress and the lack of healthy eating habits are two major reasons why addressing food security should be a priority of academic institutions.

While the causes of food insecurity may be complex, what is not complicated is the right to food. Article 25 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees freedom from hunger and access to safe and nutritious food as a basic right, and the United States needs to live up to this ideal. At this time, the U.S. House of Representatives is considering adding stricter work requirements to SNAP as part of the 2018 Farm Bill. While these work requirements are framed as an effort to help people become self-sufficient, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has estimated that about 2 million people would lose benefits or have them reduced under this proposal. My story, and that of college students across the country reflected in the research by the Wisconsin’s HOPE Lab, provide one example of why we need to be expanding access to nutrition assistance, not adding barriers. Instead of attempting to further restrict food assistance for low-income individuals, federal policy should increase aid to students and, at a minimum, eliminate work requirements for students. Addressing food insecurity for college students will allow students to stay healthy and help them achieve their life goals.