Respect Poverty

1 in 3 college students faces food insecurity


In another era, student poverty might have meant a brief period of hardship during a life of relative affluence. Plenty of graduates joke about the old days when they survived on macaroni and cheese or crackers for a week.

This is different.

What was once an anecdote now a nationwide crisis. More than 650 campuses across the country have opened food pantries for students who can’t meet their basic nutrition needs.

There’s no comprehensive data on college malnutrition.. But major surveys have recently produced disturbing statistics. 

The largest study to date, published in 2018 by Temple University and the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, a student poverty research center, surveyed 43,000 students at 66 institutions, including both 2-year and 4-year schools.  

More than 1 in 3 student respondents dealt with low food security, defined as difficulty getting adequate food within the previous 30 days. 

And more than 20 percent rated very low food security, which essentially means chronic malnutrition from food scarcity. 

Questions in the various surveys asked about skipping meals out of necessity, running out of food money, unwanted weight loss or even going days without eating.

Inadequate food frequently goes along with housing insecurity or outright homelessness in the student population. 

It’s hard to perform well in class when you missed your last meal and don’t know where your next one is coming from. 

The brain needs a good energy supply. It makes up only 2 percent of your body weight, but burns more than 20 percent of the calories you take in — as much as all the skeletal muscles in your body combined.

Other research has shown a correlation between hunger and reduced academic outcomes.

Nationally, there’s room for improvement. Only about 60 percent of U.S. college students earn a degree within six years. Among need-based Pell Grant recipients, it’s only a little more than 40 percent.

Many food-insecure students hold down a job on top of their classes, and many are receiving scholarships and loans. In some cases, though, it’s just not enough.

A large percentage of those struggling to meet the often astronomical costs of tuition are from disadvantaged backgrounds. But increasingly those from the middle class are pushed beyond their financial limits too. 

Students who come from rural communities and minority groups are disproportionately food-insecure. 

Nontraditional students can face additional challenges. A quarter of higher ed students are also raising a child. Full-time study often makes it impossible to qualify for food stamps. Off-campus food pantries may not serve students, and if they’re not located nearby, just getting to them can be a challenge. 

Part of what fueled the Postwar economic boom was the incredibly successful G.I. Bill, which allowed many veterans to become first-generation college graduates. Along with rising wages, that policy contributed to an expanding middle class. But college was more affordable then. We’re now on the other side of a decades-long rise in education costs far outpacing inflation — and wages. And we’re trying to figure out how to deal with a trillion dollars in student debt.

Higher education has been an economic equalizer in America. In the current job market, a college degree is all but mandatory for a middle income salary. But for many qualified candidates, hard work and drive aren’t sufficient when the price tag of education means trouble getting food to eat.

Despite some great ideas, solutions to the national hunger crisis remain piecemeal, subject to local approval, and with national and even regional leadership wanting. The University of California system is exceptional in looking for reforms across all of its constituent campuses. 

In the absence of a policy for permanent change, several nonprofits are offering guidance to schools to address the crisis.

Student activists, often collaborating with university dining service providers such as Sodexo and Aramark, have implemented grassroots fixes. 

In addition to the growth of food pantries, one solution at hand is to divert the massive quantities of still-good cafeteria leftovers to food banks. Another is to send out alerts when catered events let out, inevitably leaving trays still flush with fruit, bagels and crudités.

Share Meals, a successful app-based approach started in 2013 by Jon Chin, then an NYU grad student, connects students in need with other students who have unused cafeteria meal credits. A campus map pinpoints donors for recipients and allows a chat to start.

The nonprofit Swipe Out Hunger is a leading voice in the national movement to end student hunger. CEO Rachel Sumekh started the organization while a student at UCLA, and has guided its growth over nine years. The group has establishing meal-swipe and related programs on more than 100 campuses, with major cafeteria companies giving support. In California, New Jersey, and Minnesota, Swipe Out Hunger has gotten legislation passed to tackle campus food security, and more states are in the works.

Peers reaching out to break bread is heartening. Building on this principle could keep students focused on learning, not worrying about their next meal.