Colleges fight to end food insecurity; 9 potential solutions

Sacred Heart, North Texas and other institutions have forged unique strategies to prevent students from going hungry.
By: | April 15, 2021
Photos by Michael Clements/University of North Texas

Two studies released over the past year, including one conducted by the Temple University-based Hope Center for College Community and Justice, show that 60% of students are struggling with food and housing insecurity.

These tragic statistics have sparked a call to action on many colleges and universities campuses during the COVID-19 pandemic. The rescue efforts have included the opening or revamping of food pantries, the acceleration of partnerships with key community stakeholders and the dispatch of resources such as new Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) information to students.

One institution, Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., has started a program on campus called SHU Shares that allows charitable individuals to donate funds to students in need by giving online. Students also can contribute to the cause by donating a portion of their meals during each semester (something that has become popular since Share Meals started their program in 2013). And faculty and staff can even give back through payroll deductions.

Students who need assistance in getting food can request it anonymously … and then watch as meal allowances get added to their swipe cards.

“The student does not have to be on a meal plan and does not have to be living on campus: commuters and graduate students may request swipes,” said Maryanne Davidson, dean of Sacred Heart’s St. Vincent’s College. “SHU decided to start the initiative based on the overall degree of food insecurity among college students and the impact of COVID on food insecurity. Nationwide, food insecurity among college students is well documented, with some rates as high as one in every four students.”

Because of strong promotions and marketing, Sacred Heart has managed to pull in more than $27,000 in cash donations and more than 1,000 meals during the academic year. When word reached SHU’s alumni and the community, they felt compelled to contribute and spread the word.

“If it wasn’t for my Sacred Heart degree, I wouldn’t be where I am or who I am today,” said Bruce Tully, a 1973 graduate and president of Sacred Heart’s Washington, D.C., alumni chapter. “It’s all about giving back.”

Innovative ideas to prevent student hunger

The Sacred Heart program is one of scores that have been launched to help get students fed and elevate the conversation. How dire is the hunger issue on college campuses? From the Hope Center report, nearly 90% of students at one urban university are eating less because of a lack of food or money. Two-thirds say they cannot afford a nutritious meal.

Arizona State University has had its own food pantry for students since 2017, providing non-perishable items and basic necessities to students. But leaders on campus say it isn’t enough to serve all of those who need assistance. So, its University Senate pushed a “Resolution Supporting Promoting Food Security for Students” calling for a number of checklist items to be met – including getting a full-time staffer to run the pantry, creating a task force and promoting awareness through academic channels such as on an instructor’s course syllabus.

Likewise, New York University students asked their Financial Affairs Committee and University Senate to consider several mitigation efforts to stem food hunger on campus. Among those were a similar program to Sacred Heart’s that allows for anonymous donations of meals; expanded options that include shorter meal plans; and the ability to use meals that were unused during the previous semester. NYU does offer a Courtesy Meals program where some donations can be made, however they are not anonymous. There are low-cost menu items and other free food events available, too.

The goal of any program, beyond getting students fed, is to prevent negative outcomes that often come with food hunger: shame, embarrassment, depression, stress and anxiety. Institutions that understand food insecurity exists on their campuses are more likely to forge creative solutions. For example, the University of North Texas last week entered into a partnership with supermarket chain Kroger, which received the naming rights to UNT’s food pantry in return for a five-year, $250,000 commitment to help those in need on campus. Two students will be hired to monitor inventory and keep the food supplies high.

“Through this donation, we hope UNT students will never have to worry about their next meal – and can continue to focus on their studies and excel as our future leaders,” said Adam Wampler, Kroger Dallas Division president.

Grassroots food hunger initiatives are prevalent in the college space – from Indiana University students putting together their own fresh food boxes to distribute to students, to Wittenberg University holding its annual CROP Walk (which it has done for 50 years) to get donations for those in need. There are hundreds of food pantries doing amazing work, such as the University at Albany (50,000 meals thanks to community partnerships) and University of Toledo (12,000 meals rescued and given to students).

Those efforts show what’s possible when college leaders get involved. But there is more that can be done. In its Food Insecurity at Urban Universities: Perspectives During the Pandemic report, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) and Coalition of Urban Serving Universities (USU), suggest potential strategies institutions can take to help in the fight against food insecurity food hunger:

  1. Meaningfully and sensitively promote that food hunger exists, not only nationwide and surrounding communities but on campus.
  2. Include in any campaign, what fuels food insecurity, its prevalence and how it impacts individuals
  3. Make clear that food hunger is not just an adult problem but a widespread issue affecting those in young populations.
  4. A campus effort takes a variety of stakeholders. Any high-level talks for change should involve different campus leaders and include student populations, as well as the roles that each will fulfill in the effort.
  5. Research, investigations and surveys are important to measure the impact food hunger is having on campus populations. Use the resulting data to employ the types of strategies that will work best at your institution.
  6. Colleges do not operate in a vacuum. They serve large communities often impacted by food insecurity. Many of the students that attend urban and rural institutions are typically in the heart of the struggle. Networking with potential community partners and other businesses to overcome challenges, as North Texas has done, can help bridge those gaps more quickly.
  7. Food pantries aren’t the only solution, and oftentimes can be a deterrent for some wary students. Consider low-cost food options, like NYU has, and make sure education resources (such as ways to prepare inexpensive meals) are available to students. Also look at the swipe-card donation system that many employ, including Sacred Heart.
  8. The SNAP program and others, as well as financial aid possibilities, should be heavily promoted to students. Colleges can consider changing some of their own policies to help those in need.
  9. Institutions can be a great driver of change. Working with other colleges in groups and addressing the food insecurity at the state and federal level can help in the fight to end hunger.