Food Insecurity in College

by TBS Staff

Updated September 9, 2022 is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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So you're a poor college student. The world thinks it's kind of funny that you trash-pick your furniture, fashion silverware from old screwdrivers, and accept $10 checks to be the subject of questionable science department experiments.

Financial struggle, they say, is just one of those character-building realities of college life. You are semi-independent, lodged halfway between adolescence and adulthood, but largely devoid of earning power.

The broke-as-a-joke college kid is sort of a reliable old punchline. But it actually isn't that funny. Ok. Boiling hot dogs in your coffee maker because you don't know how to use your stove is kind of funny. But missing meals is definitely not funny.

Yet, evidence suggests that more than a quarter of all college kids find themselves in this very serious predicament.

The poor college student is no longer just a young person building character. Hunger is not part of a bohemian hippie movement to say “up yours” to mom and dad. Hunger is not a punchline. The poor college student is actually a growing demographic and one of the most routinely overlooked. The chuckle-worthy trope of the Ramen-scarfing, life-hacking university student is in fact casting a light-hearted gloss over a very serious problem.

Food insecurity is a real issue on campus, one that finds ever more students choosing between toothpaste and breakfast, between utilities and groceries, between text books and meal plans. We'll try to figure out why this is happening and why universities aren't doing more to address the growing problem of student hunger.

Learning on an Empty Stomach

Nontraditional Students

Colleges are enrolling more low-income students than ever before. And on one hand, that's a great thing. Higher education is becoming more widely available. Opportunities are becoming readily more achievable. Futures are being made most assuredly brighter.

Of course, for those students with the means, college was never a question. It is a socio-cultural expectation, perhaps even an entitlement. It is understood that there are costs of living. Depending on the extent of one's means, expectation and entitlement may extend to these costs as well.

But that's not so for nontraditional students like Freedom Allison. The 48-year-old grandmother enrolled to study at Sacramento State this fall semester. Once she had paid her tuition, set aside money for rent, furnished her new apartment, and purchased books for class, she found herself without food and two weeks away from her next food assistance benefit. Though she worked to improve her circumstances through education, she was already struggling to feed herself by the first day of class.

Circumstances like Allison's not only dispel the myth that on-campus hunger is merely a character-building part of post-adolescence, but they also reveal the diversifying nature of the college population.

Indeed, for those students who have overcome disadvantage to earn their passage into college, for those who are of the first generation in their family to attend a university, for those who have defied expectation and expense, enrollment is a tremendous accomplishment.

Skyrocketing Costs

Actually, that's an understatement. The fact that so many more low-income students are pursuing a college education today is nothing short of miraculous when one considers the acceleration of cost over just a few decades.

Between 1971 and 2013, says an article at CNBC, the cost of tuition has rocketed into hyperspace.

Back when Nixon was in office, the average tuition for a private, non-profit, four-year university was $1,832. While tight pants and funky music may be back in style, that's all we have in common with 1971. As of 2013, the average tuition at a private school was roughly $31,231.

As for public schools, the average year of tuition would cost you about $9,139 in 2013, which is a pretty big jump from the bellbottom-era rate of just under $500.

Soaring Enrollment

The price tag hasn't been much of a deterrent though. In fact, enrollment has doubled, from less than 10 million at the start of the ‘70s, to 19.5 million in 2013.

With $1.2 trillion in shared student debt on America's books, it's pretty clear many low-to-middle income students are borrowing their way into opportunity. While this might get a foot in the door, it won't protect countless students from pressures that have very little to do with what goes on in the classroom.

College was once a bastion for the privileged. But the end of World War II saw the passage of the GI Bill, which among many other things, provided our veterans with funding for college tuition. The landmark legislation effectively democratized the university system and paved the way for decades of marketplace expansion. It also bears noting that recipients of GI Bill funding were given stipends for the various costs of living that they would face in pursuit of a higher education.

Socioeconomic Diversity

It was largely understood that such support would play a critical part if this new socioeconomic class of students was to make the most of its experience.

Today, the variety of educational outlets and loan options means that the college experience is no longer reserved only for the privileged. But perhaps universities have not adequately prepared themselves for the challenges of true socioeconomic diversity.

Hunger, by the Numbers

In fact, evidence suggests that less-than-affluent college students will actually experience a sharp decline in quality of life once they enroll. Whereas, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 14.5% of American households battle with food insecurity, the percentage of students facing this daily struggle in the allegedly privileged environment of college may actually be much higher.

According to Feeding America's 2014 Hunger in America report, roughly 10% of its 46.5 million adult clients are college students. This amounts to two million full-time college students. Of those surveyed by the emergency food services network, roughly 30.5% of students reported that they were forced to choose between food and educational expenses at some point over the last year.

Depending on the demographic makeup of a given college campus, however, these numbers are even more alarming.

An internally-conducted survey across the University of California's nine campuses—home to some 150,000 undergrads—found that a full 25% of students had skipped meals “somewhat often” or “very often” to save money (or due to a lack thereof) in 2014.

Among 274,000 undergrads affiliated with the City University of New York, no fewer than 40% reported having experienced food insecurity during the prior year.

This is not a problem exclusive to urban settings either. For instance, a 2014 survey found that food insecurity impacts a startling 59% of students on the mid-sized rural campus of Western Oregon University.

Though we are learning more about this problem on a campus-by-campus basis, it can be difficult to ascertain the exact severity of a given student's food insecurity. Contrary to K-12 education, where extensive tracking tells us exactly how many students qualify for food assistance, no such comprehensive data exists to document college hunger. This makes it difficult to know what percentage of students are simply missing the occasional meal in between paychecks and what percentage genuinely do not know how they'll feed themselves across a whole semester.

For an idea of just how severe the problem is for some, consider that roughly 58,000 American college students self-report as homeless on their FAFSA applications. In fact though, says the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY), the number is likely much higher.

The growth in this population on campus is at least partially a consequence of new legislation, including the Higher Education Act, which is aimed at easing the burden of documentation for homeless students seeking financial assistance. While heightened accessibly of any kind is a positive development, the needs that will follow and the obstacles that will confront these students are considerable.

Downgrading the Needy

It's Not Temporary

Perhaps one reason that the archetype of the poor college student is viewed with lighthearted dismissal is the assumption that this condition is only temporary. Indeed, if the perception persists that college students are inherently part of a privileged class, hunger is simply disregarded as a consequence of the poor decision-making skills for which college kids are notorious. But skipping a week of meals to buy a book is not the same as choosing to drink beer for breakfast on game day or transforming your residence hallway into a slip-n-slide.

Students who skip meals must often choose between study and survival. To be sure, the expansion and diversification of the higher education marketplace has opened the door more widely to students of every socioeconomic background. But it would be something between an exaggeration and a fabrication to say that colleges have embraced low-income students.

Merit-Based vs. Need-Based Aid

A study by the U.S. Department of Education reveals that in the years between 1995 and 2008, the distribution of grant money has actually shifted heavily toward merit-based aid, as opposed to need-based aid.

During the decade in question, the proportion of undergraduates receiving merit-based aid rose from 6% to 14%. The average amount that these high-performers received moved from $4,000 to $4,700. The proportion of students who received aid on the basis of need also rose—though less dramatically—from 32% to 37%. The average grant went up from $3,600 to $4,000.

This pattern is a bit jarring when you consider how many more low-income students are enrolling in college today than just 20 years ago. In 1995, the ratio of need-to-merit based grants was 43%-to-24% in private, nonprofit schools and 13%-to-8% in public, four-year schools. By 2008, these ratios had undergone a dramatic shift, with 42% of private nonprofit students receiving aid on the basis of need and 44% receiving it on the basis of merit. In public four year institutions, the ratio was 18% need-based to 16% merit-based.

Stated simply, while more low-income students than ever before are aspiring to a university education, their needs upon admission are proving an increasingly lower priority. Evidence persists that chief among the needs may be a balanced breakfast or a hot dinner.

The Dining Hall Racket

So where does your campus dining hall enter into the conversation? Well, it's all a question of whether or not you're getting your money's worth.

If you are a first-year student living on campus, it's likely that your meal plan is mandatory. At that stage, it's probably best not to scrutinize what this plan is costing you per meal. Chances are that no matter how hard you try, you won't be able to use every single one of the three meals a day for which the plan accounts. Either way, you're getting billed for the plan.

But it's “all you can eat” so feel free to wear baggy clothes, line your pockets with saran-wrap, and go to town. We won't tell. Just bear in mind that things like grits and shepherd's pie travel poorly by pocket.

If you are a first-year commuter, a student at a two-year school, an upperclassman, or a grad student, your meal plan may not be mandatory. And for low-income students, this is where many of the toughest choices are made. These days, any responsible college advisor will recommend that you do everything in your power to minimize the loan debt you will face upon graduation.

For some students, this means dispensing with the expensive meal plan and any number of other optional campus services in favor of go-it-alone status. An article at a site called Consumerism Commentary offers a helpful little table outlining the two- and three-meal-a-day plans at a few notable universities.

Just for frame of reference, two meals a day for a single semester at West Chester University will run you $1,189. Rutgers will cost you $2,035. Ivy League food is just a bit more, with Yalees paying about $2,600 per semester.

If you think that you can feed yourself for a full semester at a better rate without overdosing on General Tso's Chicken, you may want to consider bypassing the student meal plan. Obviously, if you're John Belushi from Animal House, you should by all means get the campus meal plan. Not only will you get your money's worth, but if you really strap on the feedbag, you may even have a chance at hurting your college's bottom line. Certainly something to aspire to.

Now, if you aren't the type to strike fear in the hearts of Golden Corral managers everywhere, the value of the meal plan is not exactly as clear. But it also isn't inherently clear that you will be able to feed yourself at every turn without the safety net of your student-loan-sponsored meal plan.

This is something that you must consider if you feel like you'd be better off not borrowing toward a meal plan. Many students will arrive at college without having ever budgeted for groceries, prepared a meal, or even watched an episode of Chopped. Costly (and frequently unappetizing) though it may seem, the meal plan is a measure of protection against hunger for those willing to foot the cost through student loans.

Malnutrition and Obesity

There is another factor to consider. Contrary to what one might assume, food insecurity is actually positively associated with obesity. This is because those who struggle to procure food must make undesirable nutritional decisions, be it subsisting on cases of Chef Boyardee or gorging on Taco Bell's late night dollar menu. The most affordable dining options are almost always the least nutritious.

A study in the Journal of Nutrition found, for instance, that in a sample of more than 4000 women, food insecurity was a statistically significant predictor of “overweight status.” The study found that mildly food insecure participants were a full 30% more likely to be overweight than their food secure counterparts.

Indeed, for many college students, nutrition is simply an unaffordable luxury.

So for students who might find it necessary to subsist without an on-campus meal plan, it is wise to consider not just the need to eat but the importance of eating well. Between starvation and junk food, the latter is an obvious choice but it is not a sustainable one.

So if even a partial meal plan might be an option for you, and if it is the primary difference between dinner and desperation, you probably are better off accruing just a little more student debt. But be assured, your university is not giving away meals for free. In fact, they fully expect that you will be giving a few of these meals back for free at the end of the semester.

Collectively, America's more privileged students are leaving unnumbered thousands of unused meal plan swipes on the table. And collectively, most universities happily gobble up these remaining meals at the end of every semester without paying back a dime.

Student Action

That so many students are going hungry on one side of the coin, and that so many others are paying for meals that they won't ever eat suggests a basic failure on the part of campuses to connect the dots.

Columbia University

swipes-2048x1152Certainly, the absurdity of this arrangement is obvious to the students themselves. To wit, it seemed enough to a few students at Columbia that they produced an elegantly simply solution. Creating a phone app called Swipes (so named for the ID Card “swiping” that is used to check students in for dining hall meals), the inventors have produced an electronic forum where students can distribute resources equally without help from the university.

The App connects “Swipers” and “Receivers,” allowing the two parties to arrange a meeting whereby the former can swipe-in the latter for complimentary dining hall meals.

These efforts are also part of the process of bringing student food insecurity out into the open. There is, indeed, a stigma that surrounds student hunger. This stigma is enabled by the fact that we still don't see college poverty as a real or serious problem.

And much as we don't want to believe it, there is a distinct classicism that ties some students to long-rooted traditions of socioeconomic elitism. That was the experience of Columbia College Chicago student Aaron James Flowers. During an interview with a student newspaper, he revealed that he was actually marginalized from his group of friends when they learned of his struggles with hunger and homelessness. His friends, he said, began “treating him like a bum.”

In spite of Flowers' experiences, student compassion has actually been the greatest weapon against hunger on many campuses. Indeed, students are becoming acutely aware of the fact that their classmates, and in many cases, they themselves, are always on the cusp of hunger if not already deep in its throes. As the Washington Post reports, while only four college food banks existed in 2008, there were 121 in operation by April of 2014.

Michigan State

msu-bakers-2048x1152Many of these are modeled after the Michigan State University food bank, which has operated with discretion, sensitivity, and success since 1993. The first of its kind, the MSU bank was founded through a collaboration between students and staff and aimed to provide direct food assistance to struggling students.

Many on-campus food banks have replicated the approach with direct consultation from the flagship MSU branch. Campus leaders are becoming increasingly aware that now, more than ever, their own students are not just struggling to get by but are doing so in secret shame. The goal of student food banks is to ensure that students in need can access groceries without fear of embarrassment or unwanted interaction with their fellow students.

For students like Sacramento State's Freedom Allison, the day, this past September, that her campus opened the doors to its new assistance pantry was nothing short of a godsend.

Still, these efforts, admirable as they are, are bottom-up solutions to an encompassing problem. To be sure, food insecurity is, so far, an unmanaged consequence of the growing socioeconomic diverse of college students.

University Inaction

What should probably strike you as peculiar about the initiatives above is that they are specifically student-led…not that the ingenuity and compassion of students should be surprising. More surprising is that there has been so little in the way of meaningful attention to this issue by the universities themselves.

Programs like Swipes and the MSU Food Bank do help. They help a lot. But these remedies do little to satisfy the feeling that something is wrong with this picture. If food insecurity is already a troubling indicator of our nation's wealth distribution failures, its even greater impact on college campuses suggests there is no escaping a life at the bottom of this distribution scheme.

Students who struggle to eat will struggle to focus, struggle to compete academically, and struggle to graduate. Consequently, these same students may struggle to land suitable employment, repay loans, and in general, ever transcend the conditions that college was meant to cure.

The reality is that tuition rates have accelerated in an unconscionable way even as the promise of a college education has been extended to nearly every young American who desires one. These rates guarantee neither a better education, nor more exciting campus facilities, and most certainly not greater access to food.

Instead, says an article at NPR, we can attribute tuition hikes to dramatic cuts in state funding of universities. These patterns, says NPR, are at least partially to blame for tuition inflation to the tune of 70% in Washington, 75% in Georgia, and a jaw-dropping 77% in Arizona, all over just the last five years.

Even as college gets more expensive, the actual concrete return on that cost has remained stagnant. Those who struggle to make college a reality today will face far greater difficulty making ends meet than did their equally disadvantaged predecessors of just a decade ago.

Perhaps then, our gaze should be fixed on both the universities and the state governments which have shown so little interest in supporting their operation. Before any political invective can be infused into a conversation that would imply greater public funding, do take note that universities have not been the victims of fund-cutting. They have merely been the middle-man. The burden has fallen on students to make up the difference.

This iniquity does not stop university marketing initiatives, high school guidance counselors, parents, and politicians from promising every student that the way to a better future is through college. Perhaps it truly is. But for low-income students, no amount of academic success can fill an empty stomach.

According to an article in the Washington Post, economic distress is the number one reason that low-income students fail to finish college. The article notes that impoverished students who scored between 1200 and 1600 on their SATs are half as likely to graduate as their high-achieving peers in the top 25% of income distribution.

Increasingly, American universities are populated by students who juggle full course loads, families, and jobs. When you stack them against one another, and heap on the pressure of paying rent, keeping the electricity on, and buying books, something has to give. So says the evidence above, a damning indication that even if we welcome low-income students with open arms, we're giving them poor odds for survival. It also says that money, more than ability, might be a better indicator of academic success.

It's not hard to see why. A study by the Arizona State University School of Health and Promotion found that the odds of anxiety and depression were three times higher among students reporting food insecurity versus their food-secure peers.

Contrary to the many abstract and varied things that can make for a successful learner, hunger is a palpable and singular thing. And for too many students, it is so palpable and singular that it consumes all else and makes learning improbable and even impractical. And it is right to ask of our universities; how did they not see this coming?

As the Washington Post points out, poverty doesn't magically disappear the minute a student arrives for orientation. It is a persistent, gnawing, daily climb and one that threatens the very premise of upward mobility. Food insecurity on campus underscores this problem at its most basic.

Expecting state and university governments to collaborate on meal plan scholarships for low-income students is not such a radical idea. It may, in fact, be the only way to ensure that we are not setting disadvantaged students up for failure. And it may also prove a way to address on-campus hunger both discretely and without stigma.

If we insist that every young person deserves a shot at a better future, and if we insist that college is an important launchpad for that future, then we are obligated to do everything in our power to make it so. No student who earns passage into a university's community should be deprived a seat at its dinner table.

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