Food Insecurity in College: Fighting Student Hunger on Campus

Learn about the impact of food insecurity in college students and find out how and where to get the assistance and resources you need.

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EduMed Staff

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The editorial team at EduMed has more than 30 years of collective experience creating high-quality content in higher education. Our in-depth articles and guidebooks leverage primary source material and more than 120 subject matter experts to help our readers make informed college and career decisions.

Expert Review

Janet Ferone

- Bio

After more than 30 years as a Boston Public Schools administrator responsible for programs for adolescents with special needs, 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. She is also Associate Lecturer at Lesley University and Curry College Graduate Schools of Education. Ferone is a frequent speaker on mental health issues at national and international educational conferences.

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Last Updated: 11/08/2021
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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:

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:

High Food Security

Formerly referred to as “food security,” families and individuals in this range have no reported limitations or food-access problems.

Marginal Food Security

This range includes those who have reported one or two indications of insecurity. This can include food shortages in the house or experiencing feelings of anxiety about whether or not there will be enough food.

Low Food Security

Formerly labeled as “food insecurity without hunger,” low food security refers to those consuming food of lower quality with little variety. This also includes lower desirability to consume such foods. In this range, individuals typically show no indication that they are consuming less food than they need.

Very Low Food Security

Previously “food insecurity with hunger,” very low food security refers to those who report irregular eating frequencies or disrupted eating patterns, along with reduced food intake. These individuals do not get enough food to live a healthy life.

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.

Racial Minorities

The USDA reports from the last 20 years have shown that Black and Hispanic students are twice as likely to experience food insecurity as white students. Similar reports also show that Indigenous peoples of the US are at much higher risk than their white classmates. This is, in part, a financial reality tied to the racial wealth gap. The Harvard Gazette reports that white families in the US possess roughly 10 times as much wealth as Black and Latinx families.

First-Generation Students

First-generation students are often defined as those learners whose parent or guardian did not complete a four-year college degree. In a study conducted in 2017, the American Association of Colleges & Universities (AACU) reports that 56% of first-generation students reported experiencing food insecurity.

Low-Income Students

The AACU reports that about 52% of off-campus students who do not live with relatives live near the poverty line. Many low-income students can’t afford campus meal plans, especially when paying for rent, tuition, and other expenses.

Students Experiencing Homelessness or Housing Insecurity

In AACU’s 2017 study of students experiencing food insecurity, about 64% reported housing insecurity, too. Students in this demographic are less likely to meet the eligibility for programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), therefore making them more vulnerable to food insecurity.

Students with Children

Students who must provide for dependents or are single parents fall into the category commonly referred to as “nontraditional students.” Depending on their educational background, employment status, and financial situation, about 75% of students in this group face some level of food insecurity, according to the AACU.

LGBTQ+ Students

Learners in the LGBTQ+ community are also at a higher risk of experiencing homelessness, housing insecurity, and food insecurity. A 2021 survey found that LGBTQ+ adults are twice as likely to experience food insecurity than non-LGBTQ+ adults.

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.

What is the Achievement Gap?

Dating back to the 1950s, when the Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in public institutions was unconstitutional, disparities have been documented in educational attainment and performance between students of different demographics. This is what’s known as the achievement gap.

This gap is typically measured by GPA, college enrollment and completion rates, dropout rates, and standardized test scores. These disparities exist at all levels of education and correlate with students’ socioeconomic status, gender identity, race, range of physical or mental abilities, and sexual orientation.

How Does Food Insecurity Impact College Achievement?

Recent studies conducted by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that students facing food insecurity are less likely to succeed in college and are at higher risk to fall into the achievement gap. This study tracked students in college in the early 2000s and followed up with those same learners in 2015 and 2017, documenting their progress during and after college. The first of its kind, this 2021 report showed that, “These results suggest that food insecurity is not just associated with but a contributing cause of lower educational attainment.”

According to the Johns Hopkins study, food-insecure learners are about half as likely (43%) to graduate from college than their food-secure peers. The study also showed that students in high-risk categories, such as first-generation students, also struggle to finish school while food-insecure. Only 47% of students who were both food-insecure and first-generation students graduate from college, compared to 76% of their food-secure, non–first-generation peers.

What’s the Outcome of the Achievement Gap?

While additional studies confirm that food insecurity is linked to lower GPAs and lower academic performance, food-insecure college students are also more likely to develop serious mental health issues, including anxiety, loneliness, and depression. In addition to lower self-esteem and academic performance, these students are typically not able to finish their degrees or prepare for careers in fields where supplemental training activities, such as unpaid internships, are important. As a result, food insecure students may have trouble locating good paying jobs, struggle with mental health, or face serious amounts of student loan debt.

Food insecurity and the achievement gap are, of course, part of a larger conversation about racial and economic injustice in the US. The achievement gap perpetuates food insecurity; adults who don’t finish college are less likely to earn higher wages and, depending on their circumstances, may continue the cycle of poverty as adults and parents.

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.

On-Campus Programs

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:

Food pantries

Food pantries on campuses have become an increasingly popular way for schools to assist students with food insecurity. Pantries typically offer nonperishable foods, but some also have fruits, vegetables, and hygiene products. They are often created by student government associations or administrative departments. You can also find food pantries located off campus, sometimes associated with churches or nonprofits. Some schools and communities have mobile pantries as well.

Swipe drives and meal donations

Spearheaded by nonprofit organizations like Swipe Out Hunger, swipe drives and meal donations allow students to donate meals from their campus meal plans to students in need. In most cases, participating colleges and universities have online forms where you can sign up to donate meals. For students looking to receive the donated meals, many schools require you to show demonstrated need for assistance through the financial aid office. Each school follows its own eligibility criteria, so be sure to check with your advisor or financial aid office for more information.

Off-Campus Programs

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.

SNAP

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is a federal program that provides low-income individuals and families with assistance to purchase food. Administered by the USDA, SNAP benefits allow you to purchase staples like meat, dairy, bread, fruits, vegetables, snack foods, and plants and seeds that produce food.

Food recovery

Up to 40% of the food produced in the US goes to waste. Food recovery programs collect surplus edible food that would otherwise be wasted and redistribute it to people in need. Food recovery networks may partner with local colleges, universities, churches, and nonprofits. Do a search for food recovery networks in your area.

Food & financial literacy programs

Depending on the provider, these programs help individuals learn financial management skills in addition to basic nutrition, food shopping strategies, and cooking. The classes are typically geared toward adults of all ages. You can find free financial literacy courses online, too.

Community assistance programs

These programs focus on helping community members by providing counseling, rent assistance, funds for paying bills, or access to healthy food. While programs vary by community, start with organizations such as the Salvation Army, United Way, and American Red Cross.

Community kitchens

These organizations vary greatly, but many provide an opportunity to meet with others to plan, cook, and share meals. Community kitchens typically are hosted by churches, community health organizations, schools, and businesses with kitchens.

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.