College Student Food Insecurity: How to Make Real Change
December 21, 2021
By Natalie Shaak, Operations Manager
On December 15, I had the opportunity to serve on a panel discussing the topic of food insecurity and its impact on college students. The amazing panelists and I discussed the issue and potential solutions to address it locally at Drexel as well as more widely across the country. Below are my ongoing thoughts on the issue based on my personal work in higher education, the Center for Hunger-Free Communities’ research, and the discussion of that panel.
Why does hunger on college campuses go unseen?
Most people don't think about college students when discussing hunger and food insecurity. Even though I worked directly with college students for more than eight years in residential living and fraternity and sorority life, I rarely saw the true picture of hunger or its impact on college students.
Unfortunately, college student food insecurity is not as rare as most people think. According to numerous studies, 20 to 50 percent of college students in the U.S. experience food insecurity, which is consistently higher than that of the general population.
If food insecurity is so prevalent on college campuses, why are more people not aware of it? It is not that college administrators and others do not care about students well-being. It is often an issue that is hidden below the surface of day-to-day interactions. For one, we often assume that if a person can afford to be in college that they must be able to afford food. In reality, many students have to make the choice between school payments or food shopping. Or worse, they are often directed toward large loans to cover the cost of college when they do not have the money available to them for school and life expenses.
Secondly, many of us use the terms hunger and food insecurity interchangeably and equate them with an image of an emaciated child in Africa who may not have eaten for days. That is not the reality of food insecurity. By definition, food insecurity is the state of being without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. The trope of students eating cheap ramen every night would actually be a perfect picture of low food security. Often college students who experience food insecurity develop disrupted eating patterns and unhealthy food options in order to “eat on a dime.”
Outside of just the traditional college student living in a residence hall or dorm, there is a large population of what many would consider nontraditional students - adult learners, part-time students, parents, etc. who come from all walks of life and look to a college education as an opportunity to pull themselves out of their current situation, often poverty. They are often working full or part-time and caring for children while attending school, putting their personal health behind all others in their life and prioritizing their education over their nutrition.
Finally, the stigma of poverty and food insecurity is very real. Our society sends the message that being in need is the result of a personal fault or lack of effort. When in reality, it is almost always the result of a classist/capitalist/discriminatory system where power and getting ahead have become more important than caring for the community around us. We constantly hear that people receiving public assistance are lazy or receiving handouts and that sends the message that they are less worthy members of our communities if they admit they need those safety nets. On a college campus where “having it all together” is important, very few students may have the courage to stand up and stand out to say they cannot make it on their own. We know that is not a signal of weakness, but that is not the message being sent by our society. We may never know the true reality of food insecurity on college campuses and in society until we can break down that stigma.
Why is food insecurity an issue on college campuses?
Food insecurity is an issue in every community, but it impacts college campuses specifically because:
- The cost of a college education is prohibitively expensive
- Student loan burdens continue to grow and graduates leave college with more debt than ever
- The cost of everything continues to increase
- On-campus housing and food services are often income producing ventures that support other university services
- Housing costs around college campuses are often inflated
- Wages have not increased with costs and often student workers (graduate and PhD students included) are paid subliving wages for their labor
- Specific populations, such as student athletes, have their incomes regulated significantly by outside entities
- Food offered on college campuses is often not healthy or affordable
- Affordable childcare options are often not available for parents pursuing degrees
- Most students are not eligible for public assistance programs; or even if they are, these programs do not provide enough to cover basic needs
- Racism and gender discrimination run rampant through policies and systems
How does food insecurity impact college students?
So much has been written about the physical impacts of food insecurity. It leads to nutrition deficiencies, which can cause a whole host of physical ailments in adults such as hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. Food insecurity has also been linked to increased smoking, lower physical activity, poor sleep, and
For traditional college students, the emotional development taking place from 18-22 is already tumultuous enough. Not chronic stress of not knowing where a next meal is coming from causes trauma during an important development time for students leading to increases in anxiety and depression. Additionally, food insecurity often causes people to blame themselves for their situation which impacts self-confidence and self-esteem.
Proper nutrition is just as important to feeding the brain and keeping emotions in check as it is for the body. Severe food insecurity at younger ages has also been linked to eating disorders later in life as disordered eating due to scarcity develops into life-long habits. In children food insecurity has been linked all kinds of behavioral and emotional issue up to and including suicide.
Not having a proper or sufficient diet takes a toll on a student’s ability to learn. Research has linked food insecurity (and not just the nutrient deficiency) to lower cognitive function, poor sleep, and challenges in concentration, which all impact the ability to learn. One study found that college students who experience food insecurity are half as likely to graduate as their peers who are food secure.
The social environment at college is incredibly important for students. Often some of the most important experiences at college take place over a meal. If a student cannot afford a meal plan, they may miss out on those opportunities, connections and conversations had in a campus dining hall. If a student cannot afford to eat out, they will often turn down offers to join friends for a meal. This can leave them feeling very alone and isolated at a time when they could be developing an important peer support and professional network and life long friendships.
What can we do to address college student food insecurity?
To address food insecurity for college students, there are a number of approaches that can be taken at both the college/university level and the local/state/federal level.
I like to look at these in four different levels moving from more basic emergency response (level 1) to creating lasting change through addressing the root causes of food insecurity (level 4). To really make a lasting impact on hunger, you must take more progressive approaches that involve policy and system change, which can be more difficult and require a longer term commitment and significantly more time and resources.
Note: Many of these approaches would have a positive impact on food insecurity outside the college environment as well.
Level 1: Emergency Food
Emergency food is what most people think of when they think of ways to solve food insecurity. The ubiquitous food drive to solve hunger is often more about the givers than the receivers. While emergency food is necessary to address need in the moment, it will not solve the long-term problem, but is more of a bandage.
Level one are the tactics that most often start a community’s effort to address food insecurity so they should not be completely dismissed. However, in order for them to be effective, the below should be considered.
- Food Pantries
- Ready to Eat - Ensure food pantries are stocked with food products that fit student needs, such as grab and go healthy meals that can be heated in a microwave instead of traditional food pantry, shelf stable items that require extensive cooking equipment or time to prepare from raw.
- Cultural Diversity - Ensure food items are available for the diverse cultural background of the student population on the campus, such as Chinese, Indian or Latinx staples like rice, beans, tortillas, and spices.
- Fresh Produce - Ensure fresh or frozen vegetables and fruit are made available outside of just the typical shelf stable
- Healthy Options - Whenever possible, limit processed food items that are high in sodium and added sugar and offer whole grain options
- No Means Testing - Ensure students do not have to prove they are “needy” in order to access food pantry services
- Meal Plan Donation Program
- Online Sign-up - Ensure students can access services online in an easy to use system that reduces barriers to use and stigma
- No Means Testing - Ensure students do not have to prove they are “needy” in order to access program services
Level 2: Access to Assistance Programs and Resources
Level one support will often reach a small percentage of those in need. In order to address food insecurity on a larger scale, programs and services need to reach a wider audience and must focus less on fixing a problem in an immediate moment and more on sharing available resources and education that can create a better future. The items below have the ability to impact a wider population of students because they take a more proactive, universal approach instead of a reactive approach that relies on students seeking out help.
- Information Sharing
- Students - Ensure students have access to benefits like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and other campus programs by widely sharing information with all students. An example would be sharing resources in a first-year course that all students are required to take, like Drexel’s UNIV 101 course.
- Staff and Faculty - Ensure key staff such as academic advisors, counseling center staff, health center staff, student organization advisors, and even faculty have information on the resources available to students in need.
- Public Assistance Application
- Application Support - Provide support in completing assistance program applications through the campus financial aid or other office staffed by professionals or trained peers.
- FAFSA - Advocate for students to be screened for SNAP eligibility through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) application process and be contacted to apply or have applications submitted automatically if they select that option through the FAFSA.
- Financial Aid
- Scholarships - Provide scholarships/grants to reduce burden of debt students have when leaving college.
- Interest-Free Loans - Provide University-granted interest free loans (to be paid back after completion of degree) to students in career fields that are often lower paid.
- Loan Forgiveness - Demand improved and expanded federal student loan forgiveness program to include those in additional essential, low-wage industries such as healthcare, childcare, and food service industries.
- Financial Education - Educate all students about predatory lenders as well as the impact of debt/credit.
- Healthy and Affordable On-Campus Food
- Healthy Food - Ensure on-campus convenience stores stock fresh produce and healthy products, not just typical junk food and snacks (ex. ramen, chips, candy, etc.) and that these items are priced comparably.
- Affordability - Ensure on-campus vendors offer affordable food options for students at different budget levels.
- SNAP - Complete necessary steps for eligible on-campus food vendors to accept SNAP funds.
- On-Campus Food Preparation
- Kitchens - Ensure students have proper facilities to prepare low cost meals in on-campus housing.
- Cooking Equipment - Ensure students have access to equipment necessary to prepare those meals by stocking on-campus kitchens or through an equipment bank/library where students can receive free or low-cost cooking tools to borrow or keep.
- Cooking Education - Offer cooking education opportunities through either extracurricular or for-credit opportunities (such as Drexel’s CULA 115 course).
Level 3: Community-Based Support (Mutual Aid)
Mutual aid is a voluntary reciprocal exchange of resources and services for mutual benefit. It is not charity and became an essential part of the fabric of many communities during the pandemic. Mutual aid is about people giving what they can and getting what they need from others in their community. Below are a few ways to incorporate mutual aid into food security efforts.
- Free (or Very Low-Cost) Childcare - Provide on-campus childcare for students staffed by students/supported by college's education program.
- Community Gardens
- Gardens - Provide on-campus gardening spaces that students, faculty and staff may apply for plots in each year. Provide equipment and seeds to support the space. Employ a professional staff member or student staff to maintain the gardens and serve as an educator and resource.
- Gardening Education - Offer gardening education opportunities through either extracurricular or for-credit opportunities (such as Drexel’s CULA 425, 426, 427).
- Community Refrigerators
- Provide - Provide and maintain community refrigerators on and around campus.
- Maintain - Hire student workers to check and clean refrigerators regular to ensure they are stocked and meeting community needs.
- Promote - Promote locations of refrigerators to students, faculty and staff as both a place to take fresh food but also to leave excess food and reduce food waste and highlight the specific do’s and don’t’s of community refrigerator donations.
- Support Local Food Systems
- Local Buying - Support local food producers in food pantries and campus meal spaces to reduce food costs and develop local food systems.
- Farmer’s Market - Host farmers market on campus and set up so campus dining dollars can be used to purchase fresh food items (consider doubling student dining dollars when used at farmers market, similar to the Double Up Food Bucks program for SNAP in some states).
- Student Organization Events
- Funding - Provide additional funding to student organizations so healthier food options can be provided at meetings and events instead of the typical pizza.
- Event Policies - Address campus event policies that limit the types of foods that can be purchased or served at student organization events to allow for healthier options.
- To-Go Boxes - Offer to-go boxes (reusable or compostable) at events so students can take home leftover food items and reduce food waste. An ideal welcome week giveaway would be branded Tupperware or reusable to-go containers students can use throughout their collegiate careers for this purpose. Provide spaces where students can clean these containers near often used event spaces.
- Free Food Alerts - Develop a way to alert students of leftover food from events before it is disposed of and promote it to all student organizations and faculty/staff event planners (i.e. opt-in text alert or phone application).
Level 4: Address Systemic Issues (Economic Justice)
To truly make an impact on food insecurity, bigger issues that exist outside of just one University need to be addressed. Oftentimes these require local, state, or federal legislation or mandates. Universities can take the lead in advocating to policymakers for much need legislation changes on minimum wage, universal healthcare, public assistance eligibility, etc. However, there are also some commonplace campus policies seen at universities nationwide that also deserve to be addressed critically or scrapped altogether.
- Education Affordability - Work to reduce the cost of college education by reducing tuition and fee costs (get creative).
- Affordable Housing
- For-Profit Partnerships - Reevaluate relationships with for-profit housing (providers unless they are able to ensure housing costs remain at or below fair market value.
- Alternative Funding - Move away from viewing on-campus housing as an income generating line item by determining alternative income sources to fund services previously funded through higher priced on-campus housing.
- Off-Campus Housing - Ensure affordable housing options are available around campus by advocating for local policies requiring a percentage of affordable units in new construction in university districts and incentives for landlords providing units below the fair market rent for the area.
- Affordable Food
- Pricing - Ensure on-campus food locations are priced affordably.
- For-Profit Partnerships - Reevaluate relationships with for-profit food service providers unless they are able to ensure meal plan costs remain affordable.
- Alternative Funding - Move away from viewing on-campus meal plans as an income generating line item by determining alternative income sources to fund services previously funded through higher priced meal plans.
- Off-campus Food - Allow and encourage outside restaurant and food vendors to operate on or around campus (including food trucks).
- Living Wage Employment
- Living Wages - Set minimum wage range for student workers for on campus jobs in line with the living wage for your location.
- Employment Opportunities - Provide ample living wage, on-campus employment for student who do not qualify for federal work study programs as well as for those who do.
- Graduate Student Compensation - Ensure graduate and PhD students are compensated for time spent on teaching and research assignments.
- Policy Change
- Housing Requirements - Eliminate blanket on-campus housing requirements for students.
- Meal Plan Requirements - Eliminate requirements for purchasing on-campus meal plans.
- Student Athlete Compensation - Advocate for change in NCAA policies regulating compensation for student athletes.
- Minimum Wage - Advocate for state and federal minimum wage increase.
- Universal Healthcare - Advocate for universal healthcare.
- SNAP - Advocate for change in SNAP eligibility for college students (lower or eliminate work requirement, allow meal plan, etc.).
- Individual Political Engagement
- Encourage Voting - Encourage students, faculty and staff to participate in every election by providing time off from work and classes to vote.
- Vote - As individual faculty and staff, vote for policymakers who support food security efforts, living wages, healthcare, and any of the other changes noted above.
- Discrimination - Address racism and discrimination in systems and policies.
- Wage Gaps - Address gender and racial wage gaps.
Addressing food insecurity is not an easy task, but it is one that we in higher education have to take on if we indeed claim to care about our students and their futures. When a student drops out of college because they cannot afford to eat, they still have to pay back their student loans. But without their degree, they don’t attain the higher-paying jobs they would have had if they had. This makes it extremely difficult to pay back those loans and traps young people in a cycle of debt and poverty from which they and their children will likely never escape. Instead of higher education being a road to a brighter brighter future paved with opportunities, it may become a path to intergeneration poverty, if we don’t make change now.