Food insecurity among college students is a more significant issue than one might imagine. Seeing a lack of easily accessible food in its own state, The Tennessee Higher Education Commission and the Tennessee Student Assistance Corporation outlined several measures institutions can take to curb hunger on campus.
The United States Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as limited or uncertain access to adequate food on a household level. Sustained levels of hunger can curb students’ retention and persistence rates, wilt their physical and mental well-being and experience more course failures and withdrawals, per the report.
Staff and faculty may notice a student at risk of failing courses and stopping out, but they may be unaware of their food insecurity due to the stigma and pride inhibiting students from expressing their needs. The report mentioned a study from the University of Central Florida that found almost 25% of its students would hesitate to use the campus food pantry due to feelings of shame, embarrassment and pride.
What is creating food insecurity?
Expensive housing, increasing costs of college and the consequent dwindling spending power of student federal aid all contribute to students’ food insecurity. In May, the University of New Mexico discovered that 60% or more of its college and university system students suffered from basic needs insecurity.
“This data should help dispel myths about the privileged college student,” said Sarita Cargas, principal investigator of the study.
Furthermore, the report found that the students most affected by food insecurity include those who are Pell-eligible, first-generation or of minority descent. Housing insecurity affects these student cohorts in a similar manner.
Thanks to changes in eligibility to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program after the pandemic, students are now eligible to enroll. However, institutions regularly fail to understand SNAP rules and misinform students about potential eligibility. The report concludes that the lack of institutional awareness can create barriers for students.
How college campuses can address the issue
To implement effective food insecurity interventions and cultivate leadership buy-in, institutions must be able to gauge the level of need on campus. To develop a proper data collection effort without violating the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), institutions can partner with expert nonprofits to help guide them through tricky policies.
Institutional resources and planning
- Meal swipes/transfer programs: Students with extra meal swipes can donate them to a swipe bank, which can then be allocated to students in need. A survey conducted by the Students Against Hunger program at Colorado State University found a “positive relationship” between students receiving meal swipes and their GPA and persistence percentages.
- Food recovery programs: Institutions that partner with the Food Recovery Network can notify students of leftover food from various locations that they can come and pick up.
- Community and shared gardens: These can complement food pantries that do not offer students fresh produce. For this option to work, however, it must cultivate clear student and faculty buy-in.
- Cooking and meal prep demonstrations: Students unaware of how to cook are at risk of maintaining an unhealthy and cheap diet. The report highlights one study that found students are generally interested in cooking classes and desire to learn better cooking skills.
- Connecting students to resources: Single Stop is a popular anti-poverty organization that regularly partners with community colleges to screen students needing financial assistance, connecting them with resources such as SNAP food stamps, Medicaid, tax credits, child care and emergency utility services students
Targeted financial support
Emergency need-based grants can help students struggling with living expenses, utility bills and transportation. Davidson-Davie Community College (N.C.) recently helped a star student who lost her job and owed around $4,500 in past due rent pay the bill, thanks to resources from SingleStop and another state resource.
- Among faculty and staff: College staff aware of student food insecurity can help spread awareness and destigmatize the issue by communicating with their students via syllabi and organizing campus food drives.
- For SNAP resources: For students to be SNAP-eligible, they must participate in state or federal work-study. Thus, institutions can attempt to distribute federal work-study positions more evenly to cast a wider net of SNAP-eligible students. They can also strengthen university-wide SNAP education and enrollment campaigns.
States that pass the Hunger Free Campus Bill designed by Swipe Out Hunger must start a meal-swipe program, establish food pantries and create SNAP enrollment opportunities. Schools would have to designate a resource that can spread awareness of the resource and help students who wish to learn more. Nine states have introduced the bill. So far, California, New Jersey, Maryland, Minnesota, Louisiana and Pennsylvania have passed it.