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Center Staff Speaks Out on College Student Food Insecurity

Headshots of five presenters of panel discussion

December 17, 2021

Expert panelists came together online to share specific policy and system changes necessary to address the root causes of college student food insecurity as part of Drexel Alumni Relations' program "Addressing Hunger and Food Insecurity Among College Students" on December 15, 2021. The program dug deep into the relevance, causes, impact, and solutions for food insecurity on college campuses like Drexel.

Drexel alumnus Tonii Hicks, culinary director at People’s Kitchen and program director at Careers Through Culinary Arts (CCAP), moderated the panel, which included Drexel alumni, current students and professional staff panelists:

The program opened by discussing the difference between hunger and food insecurity with a focus on consistent access to nutritionally sound food as key to food security, as well and its prevalence on college campuses. According to Ehlers and the Hope Center, nationally 40 to 50 percent of college students report experiencing food insecurity. In Philadelphia, about 42 percent of college students reported experiencing food insecurity, according to the Real College Survey.

Of course, being food insecure during college has a major impact on students physically, mentally, academically, fiscally, and socially. Panelists noted how eating nutritionally sound food impacts how students are able to learn to their fullest and achieve academically. Students who come from food insecure households are 40 percent less likely to graduate from college than those who come from food secure households. 

Panelists also discussed how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted students related to food insecurity.

"COVID really exposed the flaws in our systems and structures that we experience every day," said Cottman. For example, universities like Drexel accept students who they know are not able to afford tuition while knowing the cost of living in the surrounding area exceeds the pay of jobs on campus and off.

"It's like putting band-aids onto gashes instead of administering stitches."

Shaak spoke specifically about the changes in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) made during the pandemic and their impact on college student food security. "About 18 percent of college students are eligible for SNAP, but just 3 percent actually receive benefits," she said. "Most students don't know that they are eligible or how to go about getting it, and just like with others, there is a lot of stigma associated with receiving food stamps."

From her perspective, in order for the program to really benefit college students, the eligibility requirements would need to be expanded and efforts would need to be made to better promote the program and make the application simpler, well beyond just the pandemic.

Most importantly, the program and panelists focused on the root causes of food insecurity that exist outside just the college community and focused on policy solutions necessary to address the issue. A major focus of all panelists was looking at the cost of a college education and the loan debt that students leave college with. They believed in a country with so much wealth, it is important to ensure those pursuing education have access to safe housing, healthy food, and affordable healthcare and not be saddled with lifelong debt and a false hope of a better life.

Additionally, some other local and federal policies they focused on included implementing universal healthcare, regulating the student loan industry, increasing minimum wage, expanding public assistance eligibility, supporting local food systems and community gardens, and enacting affordable housing legislation in communities around colleges like West Philadelphia. 

Of course, changes on campus are also necessary to address food insecurity. Some specific items mentioned by panelists included focusing on college affordability and limiting tuition increases, eliminating policies that require on-campus housing and meal plans, increasing student worker wages, reevaluating student athlete compensation policies, accepting SNAP funds at on campus food locations, providing more financial aid and interest-free financing options, and increasing outreach and education on public assistance programs.

The panelists also challenged the alumni, faculty/staff, and other participants on the call to be engaged on an individual level to make an impact on food insecurity. They encouraged them to ask tough questions of the University about policies and student support and demand that Drexel be a better neighbor and community partner. Additionally they stressed "putting your money where your mouth is" by donating money to student scholarships and other programs on campus that support true change if participants are able and paying student workers more in on campus jobs. Political engagement, voting, volunteering time in mutual care efforts, and supporting community efforts such as community refrigerators were also mentioned. 

After the program, participants received a resource guide developed by the Center for Hunger-Free Communities, Lindy Center, and Drexel Food Lab filled with resources that can help them stay connected to addressing food insecurity 365 days a year. Whether it’s by engaging in conversations about these issues, volunteering with a local organization, or reducing food waste in our their life, the panel stressed the importance of focusing on the issue year-round, and not just around the holidays. 

View the full panel discussion online and read Shaak's Voice's blog post going into more detail on the causes of and her solutions for college student food insecurity.