College is a major investment. Once tuition is paid and books are bought, sometimes a student doesn’t have enough money left to cover other essentials—including food. Nearly 40% of college students have experienced food insecurity, meaning they don’t know where their next meal will come from. That means in a college class of 30 students, 12 of them may not know when—or if—they’ll eat that day.
While researchers have studied food insecurity for years, they’ve only recently discovered the significant negative impact it has on students’ academic performance and their likelihood of completing a college degree. The problem is far-reaching; severe instances of food insecurity exist at all types of academic institutions and affect students at all degree levels.
Students who face insecurity are just as entitled to a quality education as anybody else but focusing on the next meal can make focusing on studies impossible. Learn the facts about hunger in college students, find out what campuses are doing to combat the problem, and discover where you can do to get help.
Food Insecurity in College: The Facts
Food insecurity is more prevalent on college campuses than many of us realize. That lack of understanding extends even to college and university presidents and administrators, who don’t prioritize food insecurity as a top campus issue. Here’s a rundown of some shocking statistics:
- 48% of community college students report experiencing food insecurity
- 41% of four-year college students report experiencing food insecurity
- Over 10% of college students have gone an entire day without eating
- One-third of students have experienced food insecurity since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic
- Only 14% of college and university presidents ranked food insecurity in their top five concerns for their school
What is Food Insecurity?
Defined by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), food insecurity is “a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life.” Unlike the USDA definition of hunger, which is considered a physical sensation of discomfort, food insecurity relates to an individual’s or family’s lack of resources to obtain enough food for a healthy life.
A study conducted in 2018 by the USDA found that one in nine Americans were food insecure. With the ongoing pandemic, the number of food-insecure people around the globe drastically increased. In 2020 alone, an additional 320 million people—one in every three—suffered from inadequate access to food.
Food insecurity is tied to many other factors in US culture and politics. For example, the links between food insecurity and racism are complex and tie into incarceration, unemployment, disability, and poverty. BIPOC populations are consistently more likely to face hunger and food insecurity than most white populations. That is, in part, because of systems that perpetuate discrimination, including those that regulate employment, housing, and criminal justice.
Let’s start with the different ranges of food insecurity to better understand its impact on populations today.
Ranges of Food Insecurity
Beginning in 2006, the USDA started using more detailed language around the ranges or severity of food insecurity in the US. Here are some terms to know:
Who is Most at Risk of Food Insecurity in College?
While students across demographics and at a wide range of schools are susceptible to food insecurity, some learners are much more likely to find themselves in a food-insecure situation. The most at-risk populations for food insecurity include students in the LGBTQ+ community, low-income students, racial minorities, and students with children. Let’s take a closer look at some statistics for the primary groups facing food insecurity.
Food Insecurity & the College Achievement Gap
Over the years, researchers have taken a close look at how various factors, including food insecurity, contribute to the national education gap. While this is a complex and multi-faceted phenomenon, recent studies show that food insecurity can significantly impact a student’s life and performance. Let’s take a look at this persistent issue in the US.
Alleviating Food Insecurity on College Campuses: Programs & Initiatives
Various on- and off-campus organizations provide programs to help students with food insecurity. Some of these options may be short-term solutions, while others are designed to help over extended periods of time.
Not all schools offer robust student-centered aid programs. To learn what your institution offers, contact the student affairs office or your academic advisor. After that, your next step is to investigate programs such as these:
You might be able to find additional assistance off campus. Here’s a look at some of the more common routes for help with food insecurity.
What else is being done to curb food insecurity?
With increased awareness of food insecurity among college students, a variety of growing on- and off-campus resources are available to help. In some cases, you can get help paying for college essentials, allowing you to put aside money for food and incidentals. In addition to any assistance your school offers, you may be eligible for discounted broadband access and temporarily extended SNAP benefits from the federal government.
Some colleges and universities offer emergency tuition assistance programs in the form of grants, scholarships, and emergency student loans or vouchers. Institutions that received money from the recent $40 billion COVID-19 relief package must spend half of that money on emergency financial aid grants, which are available through September 30, 2023.
Interview with an Expert on Food Insecurity in College
After more than 30 years as an administrator in the Boston Public Schools, Janet Ferone, MEd, is president of Ferone Educational Consulting, which provides training, program design and evaluation, and technical support to transform schools into places where all students thrive, especially those with special needs. She is also Associate Lecturer at Lesley University and Curry College Graduate Schools of Education.
Q: Tell us about your experience in working with college students facing food insecurity.
A: For over 25 years I worked with high school students with disabilities in urban high-poverty schools in Boston and assisted them with the transition to college. We also provided support to them after graduation and frequently heard about financial struggles, including food insecurity. Currently I am an adjunct professor at two private colleges and teach a Transition to Adulthood course. I also am the administrator of a Facebook group for educators, E2 Equity Educators, where we discuss and share resources for marginalized groups.
Q: What are some of the on-campus resources that college students should look for in their area?
A: Many colleges have acknowledged that food insecurity is a growing problem; studies suggest that up to 59% of students experience food insecurity at some point in their college careers. Schools provide resources to assist, such as campus food pantries and little food pantries (which are boxes set up at random spots on campus), emergency funds including gift cards, and free nonfood resources such as hygiene supplies, school supplies, and clothing. Often student government and advocacy groups lead the charge if the college is lacking in its support.
Q: What are some of the off-campus resources that are the most helpful to students?
A: Many of my students were used to receiving breakfast and lunch at their K-12 school, so they are plunged into a food shortage upon graduation. The federal grants and funding programs that might help often frustrate students because they come with a bureaucratic application process.
Community resources, including faith-based offerings such as church food pantries, may be familiar to low-income students who have grown up with them and know how to access those resources. A new resource, the community fridge, has sprung up in many communities. These are easy to access, as they require no sign-up or eligibility requirements. Students can just show up and take food as needed, although due to their informal nature community fridges can be hit or miss. For students with disabilities, state vocational resources can provide funding for items such as laptops or other devices needed to complete college and access employment.
Q: If students are nervous about their financial stability and access to food while they’re enrolled, what are some characteristics of an academic institution that will be supportive if they need extra help?
A: I’ve been struck by how open and supportive most of the public community colleges and four-year colleges are in providing and openly promoting resources, while private colleges tend to keep the information more hidden. For example, the University of Georgia has a fully detailed page on their website with resources, yet when I searched the private college where I serve as professor I could find no information. Publicizing where to get support, as well as having more anonymous food sources such as a campus fridge or pantry box with no need to sign up or provide a name, would be helpful. Also, getting student groups involved can give a boost to these initiatives.
Q: What can readers do to help combat food insecurity among college students?
A: The best way would be to contact colleges to see if they have food pantries or a community fridge to donate to or a fund to make a monetary donation. Alumni with influence could contact college administrators to find out what they are doing to acknowledge and address food insecurity.
Q: Is there anything else you would like our readers to know about food insecurity?
A: Food insecurity among college students is not a simple matter of poor students being hungry and everyone else being fine. First-generation college students, who often are BIPOC students, are disproportionately impacted. One reason is that they may not have the support to navigate financial aid and don’t realize you can negotiate the amount offered. Also, these students may attend school on a scholarship; if their family situation requires them to work to help out the family, they may not be aware that financial aid can be revoked if they become part-time students. They also may not know about state and federal grants. Families that don’t speak English and work long hours or multiple jobs don’t have time to focus on these issues.
Lack of experience in managing budgets can cause any student to become food-insecure if they spend the bulk of their money early in the month or incur an unexpected college fee or car repair that cuts into their food funds. High school guidance counselors should be well-versed in these issues and provide transition services to cover these situations, ideally bringing in representatives from agencies that can provide monetary support and financial budget management training.
Resources for Students Facing Food Insecurity
This group works to create partnerships with hunger-relief organizations to help battle student food insecurity. They also offer information for students or professionals who want to start a food pantry on a college campus.
Here’s a deep dive into several major federal assistance programs, including who is eligible and how to apply.
This site offers information on COVID-19 relief programs, research, and resources pertaining to hunger among college students, and articles on public health, food waste, and diet-related diseases.
This site includes links to free online financial literacy courses.
This organization serves as an excellent resource for anyone wanting to learn more about student food insecurity or start a related organization on campus.
Here’s a look at some of your options for assistance during emergencies, including information on COVID-19–related emergency grants.
This is an excellent resource for learners interested in formal training for careers in the fight against poverty.
This site offers specialized information and resources for first-generation students, homeless youth, and single parents who are low-income learners in college.
Check out this guide for more information on homelessness, housing insecurity, subsidized housing, housing choice vouchers, rent assistance, and public housing agencies.
This is the federal government site for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Review information here on eligibility and how to apply.
This site, provided by the federal government, outlines assistance programs that many students will qualify for, including rental assistance, student loan forbearance, and broadband internet bill assistance.