Chronic hunger is an issue that impacts people from many different walks of life. Food insecurity, which is defined as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life, affects an estimated one in nine Americans. This translates to more than 37 million hungry Americans — including millions of school-age children and college students.
Increasing evidence indicates that many college students around the country experience food insecurity. Living without continuous access to healthy food can affect someone’s academic success as well as their general health and well-being. In fact, research conducted on first-year students at eight U.S. universities in 2019 found that food-insecure participants tend to have lower GPAs and are less likely to graduate.
Although more research needs to be done to better understand hunger in this demographic, here are some things that we do know about food insecurity among college students.
5 Facts About Food Insecurity on College Campuses
1. Research has found that food insecurity is widespread among college students.
Numerous studies conducted in the last few years have concluded that chronic hunger is a prevalent issue on college campuses. A 2018 Harvard study, for example, found that up to half of the nation’s college students are struggling with food insecurity, noting that “the problem transcends geography, as well as the divides between community colleges and four-year colleges, private and public, elite and non-elite.”
Similarly, research released by Temple University’s Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice in 2019 found that 45% of students surveyed had experienced food insecurity in the past month. The study surveyed 86,000 students from more than 100 institutions.
Circumstances caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, including school closures and remote-only learning environments, have made it increasingly difficult for students to access healthy food on an everyday basis. In fact, a new survey from the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice found that, in the midst of the pandemic, three in five students are experiencing basic-needs insecurity, meaning they lack access to food, water or housing. It also found that two in three students who were employed before the pandemic have experienced job insecurity, with one-third losing a job due to the pandemic.
2. Food insecurity hits hardest on community college campuses and at trade schools.
Community colleges and trade schools attract students who are more likely to be single parents, receive federal food assistance benefits or be first-generation higher-education students — all factors that make them more vulnerable to food insecurity due to limited financial resources. As the world navigates life during the COVID-19 pandemic, college students are struggling. Data from the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice’s recent survey found that students at two-year institutions are experiencing food insecurity at a rate of 42%-56%.
In general, research has also found that minority students are more likely to be food insecure. One survey found that 57% of Black students reported food insecurity, compared to 40% of white students.
3. There are more than 650 food pantries open or in development on campuses nationwide.
In a 2018 report, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) noted that more than 650 campuses across the country either had a food pantry or were developing one, and the current figure is likely higher. The prevalence of pantries on campuses offers a snapshot of an emerging issue.
4. Many college students are not eligible for SNAP benefits.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, often known as SNAP, is the main federal program that provides assistance to food-insecure individuals and families by providing debit card funds that can be used to purchase food. Twelve percent of Americans rely on SNAP to purchase foods such as fruits, vegetables, fish and bread. However, many students do not qualify, because eligibility guidelines specify that students must work at least 20 hours weekly to receive SNAP benefits.
Learn more about the program by reading our blog post, “What Is SNAP and Are You Eligible?”
5. One reason for on-campus food insecurity is the rising cost of college.
The reasons for hunger on campus can be complex, but one glaring culprit is the rise in tuition costs across the nation. The average in-state cost for a full-time undergraduate student at a public four-year college has nearly doubled over the last three decades. As higher education becomes more expensive, young adults earning their degrees are shouldering more of the cost burden, resulting in students having less money to support their basic needs, including food.
Another factor that makes the stakes even higher is the fact that an increasing percentage of students from low-income households are enrolling in college. The GAO report on food insecurity among college students noted that in 2016, 39% of students came from households who were at or below 130% of the poverty line, up from 28% two decades earlier.
Food insecurity is a prevalent issue on college campuses, but there’s much that can be done to alleviate the problem. On a federal policy level, two ways that student hunger can be reduced are by increasing Pell Grant money to reflect the true cost of attending college and revisiting the guidelines for students seeking SNAP benefits.
On the campus level, a few ways that colleges and universities can combat the hunger crisis and ensure that their students have consistent access to healthy food include:
- Colleges need to adjust to make sure the students still have access to food even when the dining halls are closed (whether that be through creative outdoor dining options, delivery options, or a place where students can pick something up and bring it back to their room, etc.)
- Implementing meal assistance programs that allow students to donate any unused portions of their meal plans to fellow students in need, such as Swipe Out Hunger.
- Increasing scholarships to cover unlimited meal plans.
Are You a College Student Seeking Food Assistance?
Use this map to find out if your college has a food pantry.
If you reside in Westchester County, check out Feeding Westchester’s Mobile Food Pantry and Fresh Market schedule to find nearby food assistance options. Learn more about how you can best utilize our Mobile Food Pantry here.