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Support for College Students Experiencing Food Insecurity

How to Make Sure Everyone Has the Food to Succeed

For many students today, food insecurity is just a few missed paychecks away. A 2018 study by found that 36% of college students are experiencing hunger and lack stable housing. Add in the fact that tuition rates are going up while financial aid is going down, and it’s obvious that most college students and their families are feeling a very tight financial squeeze. But there is help out there. Students struggling to avoid hunger can find several resources to put food on the table while still completing their education. There are also many things others can do to help ease the burden on college students so that they don’t have to choose between purchasing a textbook or paying for food. Read on to discover what you can do to help.

Meet the Expert

Hannah Grosvenor VP of GW Store – Food Pantry

Written by:

Understanding Food Insecurity & Its Impact on Learning

Many people believe food insecurity can’t happen to them – but unfortunately, that’s never a guarantee. In 2017, a whopping 78% of full-time workers said they live paycheck to paycheck. Unfortunately, that might mean that in order to attend college, a student has to let some bills slide – including what they would like to spend at the grocery store. Check out these stats on food insecurity and higher education:

  • In 2015, 11.2% of students attending four-year colleges faced food insecurity; 13.5% of those in vocational schools faced it too. (Urban Institute)

  • Students under the age of 20 are less likely to face food insecurity, while those aged 30 or older were more likely to be hungry. (Urban Institute)

  • 31% of households served by Feeding America must choose between food and education every year. (Feeding America)

  • Approximately 58,000 students report that they are homeless on their FAFSA applications.(USA Today)

What is food insecurity?

According to Feeding America, food insecurity is “a federal measure of a household’s ability to provide enough food for every person in the household to have an active, healthy life.” Food insecurity is a measure of the various situations that can lead to hunger. It also allows for a solid way to investigate solutions.

Are college students really food insecure?

More than you might think. Though the numbers range a bit depending upon the source, a late 2017 study of more than 30,000 college students found that approximately half of two-year and four-year students are food insecure. In fact, at least one-third of two-year students are also housing insecure, while up to 14% are battling homelessness on top of hunger – and lack of housing goes hand-in-hand with food insecurity. The Still Hungry and Homeless in College study found that 36% of university students experienced food insecurity in the past 30 days, including situations where students cut the size of their portions or skipped meals due to lack of funds.

Who is more at risk of hunger in college?

Anyone can suffer from hunger, but there are some risk factors that make it more likely. Students suffering food insecurity are more likely to be of a minority background, suffered food insecurity as children, were enrolled in an undergraduate program and suspended their education at least briefly due to financial constraints. They were also more likely to seek out food resources on college campuses. Those who are food insecure reported often eating fast food, which aligns with studies that have found a higher rate of obesity among those who don’t have enough nutritious food available.

Why are so many college students experiencing food insecurity?

In addition to the risk factors listed above, we can’t ignore the fact that college tuition rates are at an all-time high, while financial aid has not kept pace with the rising costs. As a result, student loan debt has hit a record high. But even after using up all the available financial aid and taking out student loans, many college kids still have a sizable remaining balance to pay.

But those aren’t the only issues at play. The number of non-traditional college students – those who are older or have families and other obligations – is going up. More than one in four college students today have a child, which makes childcare costs a factor. Government assistance is sometimes tough to receive. Students must sometimes make the tough decision between paying rent or paying tuition, as they don’t have enough money for both – and the meal of the day quickly becomes the old college standby of Ramen noodles.

How might food insecurity hinder academic success?

Not getting enough to eat can have a dramatic effect on academics. Students who don’t get enough to eat might make lower grades, have lower test scores, and have a lower chance of graduating. Some studies have found a correlation between GPA and food insecurity; those who had a 3.1 GPA or higher were 60% less likely to suffer from food security. Those experiencing hunger were less likely to attend and perform well in class and were more likely to withdraw from courses.

What are the ranges of food insecurity?

So food insecurity is a federal measure of a household’s ability to provide food – but what are those measurements, exactly? According to the USDA, the ranges include:

  • High food security
    This means a person has no problem accessing nutritious food.

  • Marginal food security
    There might be some anxiety about having enough food or the occasional time when there is a shortage of food, but it doesn’t affect food intake or result in diet changes.

  • Low food security
    This means the food a person can obtain is of reduced quality, limited variety or low desirability. This doesn’t lead to a significant reduction in food intake.

  • Very low food security
    There are numerous times when a person has reduced food intake or eating patterns are disrupted.

Meal Mapping: Finding the Food Pantry at Your College

Every day across the United States, food pantries across the United States help fill the cupboards of those who need it most. This map features food pantries on college campuses across the U.S., as well as how to get in touch if you need their services.

How Colleges Can Combat the Hunger Crisis on Their Campus

For some lucky students facing food insecurity, the issue lasts only for a brief time before they find a new job, receive a financial aid stipend, get help from family and friends or otherwise get into a better situation. But unfortunately, hunger can continue for some students, plaguing them throughout their college experience. To help combat this, many schools are offering programs to help alleviate the problem. Here’s what some schools are doing to keep their students fed.

College meal assistance

For many college students, a meal program might be far too rich for their budget. On the other hand, those who can afford the meal plan often don’t use up all their allotted food, dollars or “points.” Across a large campus, this can leave thousands of meals unaccounted for, and they are “lost” at the end of the semester. Meal assistance programs like Swipe Out Hunger allow students to donate the unused portion of their meal plan to fellow students in need. This is then distributed in the form of dining hall meals or food pantry items. Dozens of colleges are already taking part!

Let’s be honest: Who doesn’t love free food? Even students who just ate dinner will often show up to get a free bite. But for those who struggle to get enough to eat, these events can mean the difference between a good meal and an empty stomach. It’s also helpful to offer portable foods, such as a selection of fresh fruits or small packages of chips, crackers and the like, so students can take something with them when they leave without feeling guilty or ashamed.

For students who can afford to go to college food services, being able to take food home with them – and not just eat one big meal at the cafeteria – can allow them to spread that meal out over the course of the day. Though this doesn’t help get them more calories, it does allow them to have something on their stomach every few hours to avoid hunger pangs.

Bunker Hill Community College in Massachusetts offers a program called Single Stop, designed to help students overcome financial barriers to education and end cycles of poverty. Programs like this can help with transportation, financial aid, housing information, and of course, ensuring students don’t have to go hungry.

Many student organizations, from honor societies to Greek fraternities and sororities to volunteer groups, are looking for a way to help their fellow students. Hold a campus meeting with the leaders of these groups and explain the hunger issues on campus. Make sure student organizations and student government are aware of the issue and give them the contact information necessary to help those who don’t know where their next meal is coming from and ask them to brainstorm solutions.

Many students have no idea that the person sitting right next to them in class hasn’t had anything to eat. Some might have no idea there is a problem with hunger on campus. But knowledge is power, and the more students know about what is happening to their classmates, the more likely they will be to step up with compassionate solutions. During orientation or various campus activities, offer flyers and other information on the problem of food insecurity at colleges and beyond.

Make it easy for students to find the resources they need by providing a dedicated page on the school website. A section of any student handbooks reserved for resources of all kinds is also helpful. Provide easy-to-access information via flyers, brochures and more at student services, financial aid, admissions offices and more. The Affordability Hotline through the Michigan Affordability and Advocacy Coalition (a group started at University of Michigan) is a great example of where to find resources.

Community Support for College Students

In some cases, there are no college programs available to fight food insecurity, or they are facing too high of a demand to help everyone who needs their services. Off-campus resources in the local community can come to the rescue with various programs designed to help those who need it most. Here are a few of the options.

  • Local food pantries

    What about those schools that don’t offer a food pantry? Almost every community has one, and the food there is for everyone who needs it, including students. Go to the food pantry, explain your situation and find out what they have to offer. This resource will help you locate food pantries in your area.

  • SNAP benefits

    The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is an option to consider, though it is usually not available to traditional college students. However, non-traditional students, especially those who have children, might be more likely to qualify.

  • Community assistance organizations

    In some areas, assistance organizations will help those who need food, housing and more. Look into The United Way, American Red Cross, The Salvation Army and similar organizations – if they do not have a food bank or similar resource in your community, they can connect you with an organization that does.

  • Soup kitchens

    Many local shelters and even some churches will host “soup kitchens” – and it’s not necessarily all about soup. A hot meal is provided for anyone who needs it. These are often called “meal programs.” In many cases, there are also friendly helpers available to answer any questions you might have and provide you with resources to help on a long-term basis.

  • Church potlucks

    Local churches have a vested interest in the community, and students can expect to find a warm welcome. Church potlucks are a great way to meet new people and get a hot, home-cooked meal. All denominations – even those who are not believers – are welcome to stop by and fill their bellies. Some will even provide an opportunity to take food home for another meal.

  • Summer food programs

    Some school food banks close during the summer, or run on very limited hours that don’t allow for all students to get the food they need. Summer food programs are popping up across the country to fill this nutritional gap. These programs are often take-out trays of food that students can simply pick up and take with them. If you live in a community where the summer program is only for those 18 and under, that’s still a boon for college students who are parents – their kids will likely qualify.

  • Financial counseling

    Everyone can use a second look at their budget from time to time, and college students are no exception. When seeking out resources in the community, ask organizations if they have any staff or volunteers who provide financial counseling services. They might be able to help you find a few extra dollars here and there, as well as look over financial aid options for you.

  • School supply drives

    Many areas hold community drives to collect school supplies for students in the community. These supplies are often handed out to anyone who can prove they are a student, including those in college. Though it won’t fill your belly, it will help fill your backpack and save you money on supplies you would otherwise have to purchase with your own cash.

Get Involved: How You Can Help Students Experiencing Food Insecurity

It can be tough to think about all those hard-working students who go to class without a healthy meal – who work so hard only to come home to so little. But there are ways you can help. Though the problem might seem overwhelming, it’s important to remember that every little bit of help counts – and that helping even one person is worth the effort. Here’s what you can do.

Join a social media campaign

It’s important to put a voice to the problems facing today’s college students. Social media campaigns like #Voices4Change, dedicated to describing the struggle many college students face against hunger and other hurdles to education, is one good option. Others include

Raising funds to help a local food bank or school pantry is a rewarding endeavor for everyone involved. Feeding America offers Set the Table, a guide to various fundraising activities that will help you raise money that eventually translates into more meals for hungry students.

Get in touch with your local college or university and ask about the possibility of providing a home-cooked meal to a small group of students. You can also opt to use a service that delivers a meal to those you designate, such as From Home with Love. Note that while this service isn’t specifically designed to help students at risk for hunger, it does serve as a great way to help out if you have a particular person in mind.

Call the student resource office at the school and ask about what they need, specifically for those who are struggling to make ends meet. They might welcome community volunteers to work in a variety of areas that help students, such as money-savvy individuals to offer help with tax preparation or washing and pressing clothing for the Dress for Success clothing closet. Remember, every dollar students don’t have to spend on other things can go toward their next meal.

Churches in the area are often happy to step up and provide potlucks, buffet meals and soup lunches for students and other members of the community – but they are always in need of volunteers to help make such events a success. From cooking food to serving to washing dishes afterward, there are numerous ways anyone can help provide a good meal through their local church or religious organization.

Cash donations can go a very long way toward filling up a food pantry; that’s because these organizations can often get non-perishable goods for a much lower price than the average person can. Besides cash, there are other ways to donate.

  • Provide food scholarships. Some individuals suffer under the stigma attached to being hungry – they believe they will be seen as weak or a “freeloader” if they take food from a pantry. Food scholarships can be a great way to reduce those feelings of shame. The food scholarships offered at Houston Community College are a great example of a program that helps students as part of their financial aid package.
  • Donate to a food recovery program. Food recovery pertains to individuals gleaning food that would otherwise go to waste and giving it to those who need it most. A typical college campus throws away a whopping 169,000 pounds of edible food each year! Places like the Food Recovery Network send volunteers to package up that “waste” and turn it into nutritious meals.
  • Donate to a local food pantry. When at the store, pick up a few extra non-perishable foods and set them aside for the food pantry. You can also participate in a variety of donation drives, such as the Stamp Out Hunger Food Drive, collection bins at your local grocery store and drives through local organizations, like the firehouse or health department.
  • Offer other types of donations. Sometimes even the most basic household essentials are tough to afford when a student is on a very tight budget. Donating things like paper products, menstrual products, laundry detergent and the like can help supplement the food bank and provide necessities for those who can’t afford them on their own.

Volunteering is a great way to get to know the students and provide a bit of comfort at the same time. Here are a few other ways to help.

  • Volunteer at the food pantry. Filling up boxes and bags takes a lot of hands. Give the food pantry a few hours of your time and enjoy the feeling of doing something wonderful for someone else. When you call to volunteer, ask what kind of services they need the most – you might be able to do anything from fill those bags to drive a van full of boxes to the closest pick-up point.
  • Offer volunteer hours at student services. Struggling students often need services besides the food pantry (though that’s probably at the top of their list). Other services might include transportation, child care and tutoring. If you have the skills to provide this and more, talk to student services about their campus programs. You might be able to provide time at the on-campus child care center or tutor a student in a subject you love.
  • Work with local organizations. The food pantry is the most obvious choice, but there are many other organizations that can help fight the battle against hunger and poverty. Find opportunities at Just Serve or Volunteer Match, or call your local Department of Human Services to find out about other local volunteer needs.
  • Teach others about hunger. Those who have always been food-secure often have no idea what it’s like to wonder where their next meal is coming from. Increasing awareness is a great way to keep the issue front and center. Teaching others can begin with your own family or friends. The Hungry to Help Family Action Plan is a good place to start. Then move on to the members of your community, local churches, student groups and anyone else who will listen.

There are often misconceptions about those who are hungry, especially where college students are concerned. Here are some of the misconceptions and the answers that make it clear the issue is not so simple after all.

  • Ramen noodles in college are a rite of passage. There’s no doubt that penny-pinching is a way of life for most college students. But there’s a big difference between eating on a somewhat comfortable “Ramen” budget versus not having enough money to even afford that. And it’s important to remember that Ramen noodles, just like other highly-processed foods, are cheap because they are created with cheap ingredients – and in the case of Ramen, loaded with sodium and empty calories. That doesn’t bode well for future health or energy in the here-and-now.
  • If they can’t afford it, time to drop out! College is the ticket to a higher-paying job. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, those who earn an associate degree make an average of $124 more per week than those who hold only a high school diploma; those who earn their bachelor’s degree make an average of $1,173 per week, which is $461 more per week than high school diploma holders. Obviously, going to college is a forward-thinking move for the future of students and their families.
  • Sounds like somebody needs to get a job. According to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, seventy percent of college students have jobs while attending school; about 40 percent of undergraduates work more than 30 hours per week. A full quarter of students work full-time while also attending classes. Given those numbers, there is no doubt that many hard-working students are relying on food banks to get from one paycheck to another.
  • Students blow their money on other things. Who hasn’t seen a college student with the latest expensive phone, driving a nice car or running up an expensive tab at the local bar? Many college students do spend a great deal of money; however, it’s a sure bet those aren’t the same students who are frequenting the food bank and struggling to make ends meet. Those are the students you never see, because they are too busy working or studying.
  • If they stopped getting fast food they would have enough to eat. It’s an unfortunate reality that in today’s economy, highly processed foods or “fast food” is a very cheap option – however, that affordability does come at a much higher price later down the line, in the form of obesity and related medical conditions. There’s also the fact that many college students don’t have the ability to cook healthy meals, thanks to limited space.
  • They just need to learn to budget. College is expensive, and sometimes even stretching the budget until it squeaks isn’t enough to cover all the bases. Though some students can certainly use help with budgeting, most are doing the best they can do with the little money they have. Food pantries and other services can bridge that gap from one paycheck to another.
  • They need to swallow their pride and go to the food pantry. Food banks are a saving grace for many students, but they aren’t a permanent solution – and sometimes they turn out to be very temporary. Many food banks are staffed by students, who are quite busy themselves, and they rely on donations, which aren’t always enough to feed everyone who needs help.
  • Go to a less expensive school. Problem solved! Even those who attend schools that are markedly more affordable – such as two-year community colleges – are struggling to make ends meet. Many of these students are older, going back to school with the hopes of gaining better-paying jobs for their growing families, and are paying both for the usual tuition and fees on top of rent, utilities and all their other bills.

Insider Perspective: Experiencing Food Insecurity & Running a Campus Pantry

Hannah Grosvenor is the current Vice President of the GW Store – Food Pantry as well as a Shopper. Hannah is a rising senior in the Elliott School of International Affairs and Corcoran. Originally from Okoboji, Iowa, Hannah was very active in high school service, drama, and athletics. She has carried this into college at GW though working with The Store, Residence Hall Association, College Republicans and much more. Besides student engagement, Hannah works as a Studio Aid for the Ceramics Department and enjoys independent art study in her free time.

Tell us about The Store.

The Store was created after a group of First-Generation Students (FGS) expressed feelings of extreme hunger such as “going to sleep to avoid feeling hungry” and “scheduling afternoon classes to avoid eating breakfast.” These statements partnered with the national study that stated students were choosing to buy textbooks over food sparked a nationwide conversation.  Administration leaders such as our previous Associate Dean of Students, Tim Miller, helped initially start a much-needed conversation on campus. A couple of families came together and donated $10,000…half of the money went to start an FGS program and the other half to The Store. Since then we have helped over one thousand students, faculty and staff.

You are not only Vice President, but a shopper at The Store as well. What’s your story? 

I come from a very small town in NW Iowa where the cost of living is much different than that of DC. Being a rising senior I have spent a lot of time at GW and seen a lot of changes and the creation of The Store is one of the best things I have seen happen. 

After my freshman year, I came home weighing 10 pounds less than I did starting school. With the staggering expenses associated with college, mixed with living in the most expensive city in the US, I ran out of my GW allocated dining dollars. Even with a part-time job I was still unable to keep up. A year ago, I stumbled upon an amazing resource made available to GW students – the GW Store, a student-run food bank on campus.

I became one of over 600 students at GW to use this resource that drastically changed my college experience. With money for books and [a] full stomach, my academic life and overall happiness greatly improved. As per Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, it is impossible to achieve cognitive advancement without meeting safety needs (food, shelter, water). I wanted to give back to the community that helped me so much. This past January I ran for Vice President and will continue to serve in this position for the duration of the fall semester. I remained a shopper during my term. My favorite thing is the ability to advocate for those who are unable to do so themselves for whatever reason – usually stigma associated with this issue. 

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

Stigma is the absolute biggest obstacle that gets in the way of fighting food insecurity.  The stigma leads to students thinking they will be judged by their peers, or administrations scared to acknowledge problems at their universities. We at The Store have dealt with these issues but do not let it stop us from helping those who need it. A way we have found works is to operate on the idea of anonymity, where we only ask for their email to receive the weekly newsletter and their student ID to gain access to The Store.  We have found that the lack of red tape leads to more people reaching out for assistance.

Any other advice you’d like to add for students who don’t know how they’re going to make ends meet? 

Use coupons! Sign up for memberships to gain points like CVS. I love, love, love coupons you can find them for basically anything from food to AMC movie tickets. It really is a good way to help save money.

Additional Resources to Help Students

  • College and University Food Bank Alliance

    CUFBA works with colleges and universities to help set up and maintain food banks for their students.

  • National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness

    Those who want to help can find a wealth of information here, including a very informative PDF on how to create a food pantry.

  • Feeding America

    A leading resource for those who are hungry, Feeding America provides in-depth research, volunteer opportunities and resources to help everyone get enough to eat.

  • Not Rich Guides

    It all began with Being Not-Rich at UM, a guide for students at University of Michigan who were struggling to make ends meet. Now colleges all across the country are creating their own Not Rich Guides.

  • FLIP National

    This is a fast-growing community of First-Generation, Low-Income students (FGLI) that provides resources to help them succeed, including policy changes, safe spaces and help with food, among many other things.

  • Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week

    This annual event touches over 700 locations and counting. There has never been a better time to advocate for food options and get more people involved to fight student hunger.