Food Insecurity Among College Students

September 20, 2021

Food Insecurity Among College Students

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Independent organizations have tracked food insecurity for decades. Feeding America, founded in 1979, annually maps hunger by region in the U.S. The federal government also provides research to shed more light on hunger.

Despite government data revealing increasing hunger rates, the federal government denied state requests to waive specific Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) requirements for college students. Here, we discuss the scope of student hunger and possible solutions.

What Is Food Security?

Food insecurity's definition varies depending on the source. For example, Feeding America describes food insecurity as a household's inability to provide adequate nutrition for each family member to live a healthy life. Food insecurity can also describe when people do not know where their next meal will come from.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) breaks down the meaning even further. Below, we outline the food insecurity ranges and the USDA's corresponding definitions.

Frequently Asked Questions about Food Insecurity Support in College

true Q. How does food insecurity affect students?

Some learners must choose between paying for tuition or food. According to a study by Temple University's Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, 45% of college students surveyed deal with food insecurity.

true Q. How do college students eat healthy?

College students can focus on eating protein, fibrous carbs, and healthy fats at each meal rather than processed snacks. Price matching the cost at various grocery stores and meal prepping can help students succeed in eating healthy on a budget.

true Q. How does hunger affect education?

Critical thinking requires energy, and food provides energy. Hunger affects a student's ability to focus.

true Q. How can college students afford food?

College students can apply for SNAP benefits, but they must work at least 20 hours per week or meet a specific exemption. Shopping at discount grocery stores and using free food pantries helps.

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Understanding Food Insecurity and Its Impact on Learning

The COVID-19 pandemic added to already increasing financial issues among Americans. Pre-pandemic, 44% of Americans reported living paycheck to paycheck. Now, 63% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. Unfortunately, financial struggles, food insecurity, and education access often go together. Feeding America data indicates that 31% of food-insecure individuals had to choose between paying for food or education.

Furthermore, 38% of college students identify as food insecure. However, this number varies by state and by school. For example, 47% of undergraduate college students at the University of California experience food insecurity. Many of these learners do not qualify for SNAP benefits, which require college students to work 20 hours a week. Learners who attempt working this much can experience a decline in grades.

To afford food and tuition, many college students take out additional loans. These accumulate interest, leading to high loan payments after graduation.

The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic

In 2020, Feeding America projected 1 in 6 people in America were likely to experience food insecurity. This figure marks a 4.1% increase from 2018. However, some states' hunger projections increased around 50%, including Massachusetts, New Jersey, Nevada, and Hawaii.

Specific results of the pandemic increased the hunger problem. The switch to online-only learning took away students' access to on-campus food banks and free club meals. Some states responded by adjusting SNAP benefits requirements so more people could qualify, and program enrollment increased by more than 20%.

With mandatory stay-at-home orders, many college students temporarily lost their jobs or received reduced hours. When they could benefit from SNAP the most, these learners could not meet the 20 hours per week work requirement. Only time can tell the long-lasting impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on college hunger.

Interview with Dr. Nzingha Dalila

Dr. Nzingha Dalila is the director of counseling services at Antioch College. Dr. Dalila earned a bachelor's in African American studies, a master's in mental health counseling, and a doctor of education in counseling education and supervision. She is a licensed clinical counselor and licensed chemical dependency counselor and a long-standing member of the American Counseling Association. Dr. Dalila has served as assistant professor in human social services at the University of Cincinnati as well as a co-instructor for Dialogue Across Difference at Antioch College.

Q. How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted food-insecure students? How are students coping with food insecurity?

With the COVID-19 pandemic, students have experienced an increase in food insecurity. Systemically, our institution has made changes in the ways that food is made available. We have had to ensure that food is provided to students with safe distancing. This means limiting access to prevent possible contamination instead of the regular buffet-style setup and reducing the number of students who can be in the same space simultaneously. The isolation that is required to keep students safe also means that students are not able to travel in groups to areas where they might purchase larger quantities of food at a discount.

We have collaborated with community groups to develop a food pantry on campus. However, our projects with these groups had to become limited or temporarily come to a halt. These issues do not reflect the food insecurity experienced by students who now have to study remotely. Many students are suffering loss of income due to the pandemic, or they are now responsible for managing the little resources they have with families. Previously, students who left home to live on campus could rely on meals provided as part of their campus housing plan.

Food insecurity results in a cascading effect of physical, mental, and emotional problems. These stresses are compounded by the lack of personal contact with others, studying in cramped spaces, Zoom fatigue, and overall structural instability of our society as we face the real issues of deaths, illnesses, and lack of government resources.

In addition to the physical fatigue that comes with food scarcity, the relationship between food insecurity and cognitive functioning is clear. We also know that there is a clear connection between stress, motivation, focus, and organizational skills. The COVID-19 pandemic has compounded these conditions, thereby putting significant strain on students’ ability to successfully navigate their overall college experience.

Q. What are some of the biggest challenges you see students facing today concerning food insecurity?

The biggest challenges include many service-oriented jobs shutting down or cutting back on staff. Students studying remotely could be hit the worst because they may not be able to work, have to negotiate what resources are available with their entire family, and they do not have the guaranteed meals like those who are in residence halls.

Q. What has your college been doing to help students impacted by food insecurity during the pandemic?

Our kitchen team has made more individually wrapped snack food items available in selected areas of our residence halls. There are some other locations where students safely study on campus where snack foods are also available outside of the regular meal times, such as the library. Our Student Affairs staff have worked ceaselessly to fill the gaps for students, traveling to fill medical prescriptions or grocery supplies.

Q. Do you have advice for students who do not know how they are going to make ends meet?

The federal government has provided some special funding, and we have taken advantage of resources released by Ohio to address students’ physical and mental health needs. We have encouraged students experiencing food insecurity to apply for SNAP.

Some students are eligible to receive up to $200 monthly to pay for groceries. Counseling Services offers assistance to all students in navigating the federal government website in the hope that this assistance will provide some relief and hope.

Support for College Students

Unfortunately, many college students facing hunger feel a stigma associated with receiving help. Organizations and volunteers work hard to make people feel accepted and welcomed, so struggling individuals should never hesitate to reach out. Food-insecure college students can seek assistance in the following ways.

How You Can Help Students Experiencing Food Insecurity

Hunger affects nearly every community in America. Fortunately, we live in a society full of helpers. College students can rally their friends to make a big difference in the community. Consider joining the fight to end student hunger in the following ways.

Resources for Food-Insecure Students

If you struggle with hunger, know that you are not alone. Check out these five resources for information on food pantries and realistic lifestyle tips.

Tessa Cooper is a freelance writer and editor who regularly contributes to international and regional publications focused on education and lifestyle topics. She earned a bachelor’s in public relations from Missouri State University and is passionate about helping learners avoid high student loan debt while pursuing their dream major. Tessa loves writing about travel and food topics and is always planning her next meal or vacation.

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