Hunger on campus: Food insecurity goes to college

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If you can afford college, you can certainly afford to eat, right?


The truth is, many college students are scraping to get by. Nearly half of the students in one survey reported "food insecurity," meaning they lack reliable access to enough affordable, nutritious food; 22 percent reported going hungry. The problem is so acute that universities are opening food banks at campuses across the country.

The average college student no longer fits the stereotype of an 18- to 22-year-old who recently graduated from high school and is comfortably bankrolled by supportive parents. Instead, more and more of them are supporting families of their own, working full time and struggling to keep up with rapidly escalating costs. The College and University Food Bank Alliance finds that many are "food insecure or one missed paycheck away from being food insecure."

UC-Riverside food pantry

It doesn't help that college costs keep rising, in large part because states have been defunding higher education. Even traditional students can be left to struggle, with less support from home. "Empty cupboards and scraping by are a way of life for far too many students, and these stressors affect student success," reports CUFBA.

At food pantries serving the City University of New York, students frequently come in with headaches from having gone without food for 24 hours, or even longer, hoping to get something to eat before class. At a community college in Boston, one professor, helping a homeless student register for class, asked if he'd eaten anything that day. He had not, so the professor sent him to the cafeteria with money for sandwiches. At the University of California, Riverside, one student, ineligible for loans due to immigration status, says he can barely afford books, let alone groceries. Another at UCLA describes how hunger inhibits his ability to think.

In a survey of 3,000 Wisconsin public college and university students, 24 percent said they didn't have enough money to buy food, ate less than they felt they should or cut the size of their meals because of money. The survey, as well as the story of the Boston professor, was reported in "Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream" by Sara Goldrick-Rab, a member of the Temple Association of University Professionals. Another survey cited in the book, of more than 4,000 community college students from seven different states, showed one in five reported being hungry.

Nick Freudenberg, a professor of public health at the City University of New York and a member of the Professional Staff Congress, the AFT affiliate there, documented the outsized problem at CUNY, where nearly a third of the students have household incomes under $20,000 a year. In 2011, 23 percent of the more than 1,000 CUNY students Freudenberg surveyed reported they often or sometimes went hungry because of a lack of money.

Food banks and funding

The good news is, that figure dropped 8 points to 15 percent in 2015. It's still far too high, says Freudenberg, but it is remarkable progress. He credits several factors, among them Single Stop, an online screening program that determines what social services are available to students in one convenient campus location. CUNY also has built up a total of eight food banks at different campuses throughout the city, each run by the Food Bank for New York City. In addition, the improving economy and changes in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) enrollment procedures in New York City and state may have played a role, says Freudenberg; addressing food insecurity requires multiple interventions.

Supplies at UC Riverside pantry

Despite the progress, Freudenberg is worried: Donald Trump has threatened to cut back the SNAP program—or food stamps—one of the bedrock services students find at Single Stop. The problems are heightened among people of color and first-generation college students, making the issue one of equity and access. And they are complicated by other symptoms of poverty, including housing insecurity, homelessness and lack of money to buy textbooks or pay for transportation to school.

Moving, personal stories about homeless students illustrate the point: Poverty is a hidden but crippling problem among college students and, as anyone who has been following the hashtag #adjunct knows, among some faculty as well.

At Milwaukee Area Technical College, "71 percent of our college students are low-income and receive federal financial aid and Pell grants," says Michael Rosen, an economics professor and president of Local 212, the faculty union there. They frequently ask for help, and the union steers them to the campus food bank as well as to an emergency fund it helps manage. The University of California system reports 19 percent of its students are food insecure; the UC Riverside food bank serves 200 students a week. At Michigan State, another AFT-affiliated campus, a long-standing food bank is run by students, for students. Rutgers students supplement what they can get from their food pantry with social media alerts about campus events that include free food.

Another larger-scale solution is a free lunch program similar to the one at K-12 public schools. Both Goldrick-Rab and Freudenberg support this idea, reasoning that in many cases, a college degree has replaced a high school diploma as a passport to a good-paying job, and that the same services that make high school education accessible should be made available to those seeking college education. Goldrick-Rab also helped create a resource guide while she was director of the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, with links to financial aid, low-cost housing options, food bank directories and even a menu of inexpensive "meal hacks" for people with limited access to both food and a place to prepare it.

Addressing food insecurity on campus is central to the faculty mission, says Rosen. "If we don't deal with all the needs of our students—if we try to feed them intellectually, but they're hungry and they're homeless or facing the kind of deprivation that a lot of students face—they're not going to succeed."

[Virginia Myers/photos courtesy R’Pantry, UC-Riverside]