Food Insecurity on College Campuses
Throughout the pandemic, food insecurity and hunger have been in the minds of people across the country Yet hunger on college campuses, in spite of impacting huge numbers of students nationally, remains a hidden epidemic.
A Hope Center Survey from 2021 showed that around 30% of college students were experiencing hunger, with over half of respondents unsure how to apply for support. Students have a wide range of backgrounds and needs that don’t often match the preconceived notion we have of them.
But, more students are getting involved, and solutions are becoming more creative and responsive to their needs. Even with this incredible progress, more action is needed to expand research and policy to ensure that no college student is at risk for the long- and short-term consequences of hunger.
“Students are using their voice – get ready for change, the students are coming!” Jaime Hansen
Key Takeaways and Quotes
- We need to break preconceived ideas of who a student is. The image we have of students doesn’t match the image we have of those experiencing hunger, and that disconnect leads to students missing out on services that could prevent their food insecurity. It is increasingly more common now for students to be adults who are financially independent, might have their own dependents or are first generation college students without strong financial support systems.
- “Hunger doesn’t look like you think it does.That framing really limits us from seeing the full picture. Reexamine your assumptions and your pictures of hunger and food insecurity.” Jessica Owens Young
- “There are very real examples, so many college students face every day: stay in school or follow an opportunity to make more money – when you drop out, it’s that much harder to get back in [to college], to engage, and prolong your education. You managed to get in, but now you have an immediate need for food, shelter, an emergency medical issue, and you need to drop out to meet that need. From a longer-term perspective, we all see inequities in cities across the country, when you have individuals drop out, their path back is through minimum wage jobs, and that pathway does not lead to financial stability in the long run. Living wage jobs would put them on completely different trajectory. [This has] intergenerational implications and inequities, and food and housing is a large portion of that need.” Radha Muthiah
- Students are leading conversations on hunger and food insecurity in their classrooms and schools, which reduces stigma and increases the number of people who access services.
- “Some students don’t know what a food desert is or didn’t know the term food insecurity and they realize they grew up in food desert or were food insecure themselves; it was so normalized and hushed. They realize it’s an issue, and an issue worth talking about.” Anna Bowden
- Students use their various educational programs and areas of expertise to come up with solutions. For example, law students may contribute ideas for policy, business students bring their expertise on business models; nutrition students contribute to ideas regarding promoting health in pantries. These grassroots efforts lead to better programs, since they are informed by the very people who will use them.
- There are specific programs that can break barriers and stigma. Some on-campus pantries have moved to a shopper model, and some offer delivery options for students who have other obligations like work or childcare. These types of adaptions increase dignity and connection and address real barriers to access.
- More research is needed to get a better picture of who is experiencing hunger, and in order to do that on a national scale, the research field needs to decide on a consistent definition of food insecurity. National demographics of student hunger will help to identify areas where resources should be focused to optimize equity. In particular, we should invest in data collection in Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Hispanic majority schools.
- The time is ripe for energizing efforts in advocacy. The White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health in September highlighted a renewed national interest in food and nutrition. In particular, there are many barriers to enrolling in SNAP, such as work requirements, challenges with completing the applications and awareness of program availability. Pre-pandemic, only 31% of students who qualified actually received SNAP, so efforts much be made to close that gap.
- Support a Hunger Free Campus Bill in your state. To learn more about how to get involved visit: https://www.swipehunger.org/hungerfree/
- Call your legislators to let them know that hunger on campus is a priority for you. You can find your legislators here or search “Find my legislator” and your state.
- If you work in an on-campus pantry, consider setting up a visit for your legislators.
- Help connect on-campus pantries with local food banks.
- Consider donating to on-campus pantries in your community.
- Talk about hunger and food insecurity to destigmatize and normalize the issue in your communities.
- Read more about the impact, current efforts and recommendations for next steps here.
- In 2021, Swipe Out Hunger conducted a survey of pantries on college campuses to determine the basic needs and barriers pantries were experiencing. Read the full report.
- Capital Area Food Bank conducted social research in 2022 to better understand the scope of hunger and food insecurity and hunger in the Washington, DC area in light of the pandemic. This population-level survey was the first of its kind, and breaks down the data by a variety of demographics to get a clear picture of who is impacted by hunger.
- Farm Link Project connects farms with surplus produce to communities experiencing food insecurity. Not only are they addressing food insecurity with food donations, they also were started by college students and continue to employ college students which gets to some of the root causes of hunger.
- Read more about the Role of Institutions of Higher Education in the Food Justice Movement, written by moderator Johanna Elsemore, presenter Jessica Owens Young and Anastasia Snelling