Campus Food Insecurity Matters
Food insecurity among American college students is a significant problem. While outdated stereotypes of higher education presume that undergraduates live on campus, receive stipends from their parents, and gorge themselves in campus dining halls, the facts suggest the opposite.
Only 15.6 percent of today’s students reside on a college campus, at least half receive little or no financial support from their parents when it comes to paying for college, many work several jobs (in addition to studying full time), and few can afford to purchase meal plans that cover the standard 21 meals a week. Instead, most of today’s students face sizable unmet financial need that dwarfs their available resources and contributes to a shortage of funds for basic necessities, including food and even housing.
The new economics of college are well-documented, if not yet fully understood. Rising tuition and a failing financial aid system, a labor market characterized by high employment rates but low wages, and a volatile economy that stresses the shrinking middle-class—these are but some of the major problems. As colleges and universities face growing financial pressures from state budget cuts and fierce competition, they turn to food service to make a profit, raising prices on already-strapped students.
Food insecurity among college students is a problem that Americans have overlooked and ignored for a long time. This fact, plus a culturally held belief and norm that ramen is a college rite of passage, make it difficult for some to understand college food insecurity. But the data are clear. When the questions are asked of today’s students, the results strongly indicate that they have difficulty purchasing adequate food for balanced meals—the definition of food insecurity according to the United States Department of Agriculture.
Research teams from multiple fields (including but not limited to sociology, economics, public health, nutrition, and social work) have assessed campus food insecurity at more than 500 colleges and universities around the country, including the University of California, California State University, City University of New York, the community colleges of California, Maricopa (AZ), Dallas, Chicago, Oregon, New Jersey, and Washington, and many more. Taken as a whole, the research strongly suggests that food insecurity impacts at least one in three undergraduate college students. Moreover, this research has been published in both peer-reviewed journal articles, including two systematic reviews, and publicly vetted and widely distributed online reports, including a recent one covering more than 330,000 students at more than 400 colleges.
Evidence also shows that when college students experience food insecurity their health also takes a toll. Food insecurity among college students is related to higher weight status/BMI despite the notion that skipping meals results in weight loss. This is because when students skip meals to cope with not having the money to afford food, they compensate by choosing inexpensive calorie-dense foods, which contributes to weight gain. Other factors that take a toll are overall health, mental health and stress, and academic performance.
Students who are food insecure are overwhelmingly working, and working extensively, but are far less able to concentrate on their education and perform well in school. We know this both from quantitative studies and from interviews, across all levels of schooling.
Importantly, rates of food insecurity appear to be much higher among college students compared to the general population—and this makes sense because the new economics of college put students in double jeopardy. They have less time to work, and less access to work, compared to other low-income people. They face more expenses, often having to put their limited resources toward housing instead of food. And while college students are eligible for financial aid, they are far less eligible for other supports including SNAP and subsidized housing.It is efficient and effective to take campus food insecurity seriously.
Some people assume that financial aid makes up for all of that. But the purchasing power of financial aid has declined precipitously; it hardly offsets the consequences of the systemic exclusion of students for other income supports. Students who cannot complete the financial aid application do not get that support. This includes students who are part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program or who are DREAMers, those who are unable to obtain the required information from their parents, and those who have fled domestic violence situations without all of their paperwork.
The financial aid formula also makes mistakes or treats students differently based on their parents’ age and time to retirement. Students who are considered dependent on their parents are assumed to benefit from financial support that they may not actually receive—leaving them without financial aid or other help. For example, many LGBTQ+ students become food insecure because it is wrongly assumed that they are supported by parents from whom they are estranged.
There are many academic, financial, and health reasons to address campus food insecurity. There is nothing to gain on both ends when a student sleeps through class due to insufficient nutrition. Grades suffer when a student thinks more about how they will get their next meal rather than focusing on academics, and when this happens, no one profits. A small investment in a campus-based meal program could boost grades and allow students to maintain their financial support. It is efficient and effective to take campus food insecurity seriously.
We recommend beginning by expanding students’ utilization of the SNAP program. The GAO’s recent report confirmed that college student eligibility for SNAP far outstrips take-up at this point, and that is money left on the table that could be used to boost college attainment. Colleges should revisit their business models for campus dining services and ensure they do not put profit over retention. If government subsidies prove an efficient way to lower campus meal prices, then an expansion of the National School Lunch Program to higher education may make economic sense. The recent passage of hunger-free campus legislation by several states, along with several pending bills in Congress, allows for evaluation of that possibility.
Addressing campus food insecurity does not turn colleges into social services agencies; rather, it makes them more effective at their job—education. Addressing food insecurity does not make students dependent on the government; rather, it increases the odds that they will achieve financial independence. That should be a goal we can all agree on.
Sara Goldrick-Rab is Professor of Higher Education Policy & Sociology at Temple University, and Founding Director of the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice in Philadelphia.
Nicholas Freudenberg is distinguished professor of public health at the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy and director of the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute.
Suzanna Martinez is an assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California-San Francisco School of Medicine.
Aydin Nazmi is a professor of food science and nutrition at California Polytechnic State University.
Mass College Hunger Is a Statistical Sham
Some college students are going hungry nowadays, as some collegians have gone hungry since medieval times when students rioted in the streets of Oxford, Cambridge, and Heidelberg. Some college students are not eating meals that nutritionists would approve, as was commonplace with the 25 cent Kraft macaroni and cheese boxes students ate in the 1970s or the ramen noodles students relied on in the 1980s and 1990s. But where did presidential candidate Bernie Sanders get the notion that “nearly half our college students are going hungry?”
From Professor Sara Goldrick-Rab and her team at the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice. According to the Hope Center, 45 percent of college students were “food insecure” in the prior 30 days based on their survey. The 45 percent figure comes from questionnaires that tap sentiments and opinions, not actual food consumption. If someone fears missing a single meal, they can be categorized as “food insecure” regardless of how much they ate. If someone feels they need organic food but can only afford conventional food, they can be labeled “food insecure.” Many media outlets uncritically took the Hope Center report and converted it into a national emergency. A New York Times headline proclaimed: “Nearly Half of College Students Surveyed in a New Report Are Going Hungry.”
Goldrick-Rab recently lamented that “the real story is the federal government hasn’t even bothered to collect nationally representative data” on student hunger. Actually, the feds do have solid data which undermines the Hope Center report.
Based on a thorough Census Bureau national survey, the Agriculture Department reported last September that 5.9 percent of American households were “food insecure” within the past 30 days. The federal survey was far broader and more representative than the Hope Center report. The Agriculture Department explicitly warns the media that food insecurity is not a measure of hunger, but the Hope Center omits that warning label.
The Hope Center claims that college students are 762 percent more “food insecure” than average Americans. This makes no sense unless one presumes that students are practically a persecuted minority with suffering rates akin to people stranded on Pacific islands after shipwrecks. The Hope Center’s definition of “food insecurity” includes “the limited or uncertain…ability to acquire such foods in a socially acceptable manner.” If someone dreaded being seen food shopping at Walmart, would that mean they are food insecure because they were stressed to afford Whole Foods prices? In 2018, the Center reported that 26 percent of students with a college meal plan were “food insecure.” But how did students oversleeping and missing breakfast become part of a national crisis?
Relying on food security surveys to gauge college hunger is like estimating the number of suicidal collegians by asking how many students had any unhappy thoughts in the prior 30 days.It is a mistake to rely on food security opinion surveys when actual health data is available on college students.
The wild variance of estimates on college hunger is another reason to distrust alarmist data. The Urban Institute, a respected Washington research organization, relied on credible federal data to estimate that “11 percent of households with a student in a 4-year college experienced food insecurity.” A 2017 study published in the American Journal of Health Promotion found that “15 percent of student respondents at one 4-year college experienced food insecurity, with an additional 16 percent of student respondents at that college estimated to be at-risk for food insecurity.” What is “at-risk for food insecurity?” Does that mean that someone had second thoughts late at night about not chomping another slice of pizza? In 2017, the Hope Center claimed that “as many as two-thirds of students were food insecure.” Pick a number, any number—but make it high enough to stampede the media.
Did something happen in the last decade or so to vastly decrease the competence of college students to handle the daily life challenges that other Americans surmount? Up to 25 percent of students at some colleges are now claiming to have some type of mental or psychiatric disability in order to receive more time to take tests or other accommodations or privileges thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act. Should we also presume that college students have become unable or unwilling to feed themselves? Or should we presume that any student who misses a meal for any reason is somehow a victim of social injustice? And what would we find if we asked about the average “food insecure” student’s discretionary spending on alcohol, drugs, coffee, and cell phones?
Hyperbole on hungry college students is often part of a push for universal free college tuition. (The HOPE Center acronym initially stood for Harvesting Opportunities for Postsecondary Education.) Vastly exaggerating college student hunger invites political takeovers of American higher education. According to The Nation, Goldrick-Rab’s “dream” is to have a federal program to feed food-insecure college students modeled after the national school lunch program for elementary and secondary students. School lunch programs have been dietary disasters, spurring increased obesity and diabetes.
It is a mistake to rely on food security opinion surveys when actual health data is available on college students. The percentage of students who were overweight or obese rose from 23 percent to 41 percent during their four years in college, according to a 2017 Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior report. A 2016 study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior found that the average student gained ten pounds during their four years in college. College students, like other Americans, are far more likely to be vexed by obesity than by food shortages.
In 2006, the National Academy of Sciences urged the Agriculture Department to find a way to measure actual hunger, rather than relying on surveys on people’s memories and opinions about their diets. Unfortunately, the Agriculture Department did nothing to develop a far more reliable gauge. The United Nations estimated in 2017 that fewer than 2.5 percent of Americans are actually undernourished.
The growing controversy over suffering college students should be another propellant to devise a reliable gauge of hunger. If that group of students can be identified, then far better responses could be devised than a new federal program to give free food to a class of people already prone to being overweight or obese. In the meantime, any activist report that claims college students are 762 percent more “food insecure” than other Americans deserves far more skepticism than reverence.
James Bovard is the author of ten books, including the bestselling Lost Rights: The Destruction of American Liberty (1994). He is a member of the USA Today Board of Contributors and has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Playboy, and Washington Post.