When she was a college freshman, student McKenna McCall recalls contemplating how to turn a 10-cent package of ramen into two meals. Other students in higher education find themselves weighing two choices: buy meals for a week, or pay for a must-have textbook?
These are all too common dilemmas faced by college students everywhere. In fact, estimates reveal about one in three college students experiences food insecurity, meaning they don’t have access to sufficient food or food of adequate quality, to meet their basic needs. But most people overlook these students.
If you’re one of these students — or if you know someone struggling with food insecurity in college — this guide is for you. Keep reading to connect with resources, learn how colleges can offer better support, and learn from an expert about the impact of food insecurity in college — and ideas about how to solve it.
Let’s begin by addressing the root causes of this nationwide college epidemic.
Factors Contributing to Food Insecurity in College
Why exactly are so many college students struggling with food insecurity— especially now more than ever? The answer, as you can expect, is not a simple one. The “starving college student” trope has been popular for generations, yet it’s not just a punchline: Recent statistics show rates of food insecurity among college students are more than double that of a typical U.S. household. According to the non-profit Feeding America, many college administrators don’t even know this is a significant issue; they think of hunger on campus as a rarity, simply because students often hide their struggles.
Here are some of the top reasons that contribute to student hunger, according to research.
Cost of College is Rising
Regardless of the measure you’re using, the basic fact remains: College is simply becoming increasingly expensive. In fact, research from the Education Data Initiative reveals the following:
- The average annual cost of tuition at a public four-year college is 37 times higher than tuition in 1963.
- Tuition at public four-year institutions increased 31.4% from 2010 to 2020.
- After adjusting for currency inflation, college tuition has increased 747.8% since 1963.
With such dramatic increases in recent years, the cost of college itself is the primary contributors to increasing food insecurity among college students.
Cost of Living is Also Rising
You only have to visit a grocery store or pull up to your local gas station to come face to face with one of the most daunting facts about food insecurity: The cost for basic items — like food, housing, healthcare, and transportation — is also on the rise. Just since the pandemic, research shows that food has experienced the biggest price increase since 1979, and energy prices are increasing exponentially. When the cost of daily needs rises, more college students have to make choices that impact their quality of life.
Wages Aren’t Rising to Meet Inflation
While some college students don’t work in order to focus on school, many rely on employment income to make ends meet. Recently, wages across many industries have, on average, seen minor increases; however, these increases are not keeping up with the rising cost of living. When this happens, you find more people struggling to afford the things they need to live, and this includes college students who count on wages from their jobs to sustain them.
Many Students Don’t Qualify for Public Assistance
Programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly referred to as SNAP, are in place to help those experiencing food insecurity. However, fewer than 1 in 5 college students are eligible for nutrition assistance because many students cannot meet the specific and strict requirements placed by the Congress for eligibility. According to the non-profit Just Harvest, this is because public assistance programs like SNAP were created with the mindset that post-secondary education was a luxury instead of a necessity.
Affordable Childcare Often Isn’t Available for Student Parents
College students who are also parents face extra hurdles when it comes to affording basic necessities. Most are juggling work, school, and childcare — the last of which is increasingly expensive and hard to find. According to recent research from the non-profit The Education Trust, there is no state in which a student parent can work 10 hours per week at minimum wage and afford tuition and child care simultaneously at a public college or university.
On-Campus Food Options are Often Highly Inflated
Research reveals that the average college charges about $4,500, or $18.75 per day for a three-meal-a-day dining contract that covers the eight months or so of a typical academic year. That’s more than the average $3,989(less than $11 a day) that the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates a single person spends for food in a year. These statistics show that undergraduates appear to be spending 70% more per day on campus than cooking on their own.
Online Students May Lack Awareness or Access to Student-Centered Resources
Online students often choose their education modality out of convenience, trying to attend college without relocating. However, this physical distance can often accompany a perceived distance from resources available to support them. This means online students may not be able to take advantage of support programs, like college food pantries. Or they may not know that there are resources in place to help them connect with organizations to help them find food.
Systemic racism and oppression can increase the impacts of food insecurity, and food insecurity has been shown to disproportionally impact students of color. According to a study by Wisconsin’s HOPE Lab, 47% of Black students and 42% of Hispanic students at four-year institutions experience food insecurity compared to 30% of their White peers. Similarly, students who are food insecure are also likelier to face barriers in affording childcare, housing, and healthcare, which can magnify the impact of not getting enough to eat.
Resources to Help Food-Insecure Students
Food insecurity on college campuses is more common than most people realize. The struggle to access enough food to survive leaves some students, according to National Institutes of Health research, relying on “…negative coping strategies and will often sacrifice the nutritional quality of their meals in order to get enough to eat.” But this doesn’t have to be the case. There are many resources that aid these students to get adequate nutritional food. Below, let’s explore a few of the most common types.
Local Food Pantries
Many communities — and an increasing number of colleges — offer food pantries, which make food available to community members free of charge. Many of these college locations are off the beaten path in order to ensure student privacy, and they’re often unstaffed — allowing students to simply use their ID badge to check in/out with the necessary items. Community food pantries often happen on established dates, encouraging food-insecure individuals to collect a predetermined amount of food.
Public Assistance Programs
SNAP, WIC, TEFAP — it’s a veritable alphabet soup when it comes to federal, state, and local food resources. However, it’s important to note that community members do have access to food through a variety of public assistance programs. Feeding America has a useful chart defining the different programs, as well as identifying their target audiences and providing links for more detailed information.
Meal Donation Programs (On-Campus)
Despite the thousands of dollars, students (and sometimes their well-meaning parents) spend each year on campus meal plans, students often don’t take full advantage of their dining credits. Therefore, organizations like Swipe Out Hunger are working to create on-campus meal donation programs, allowing students the option to donate their extra meals to their peers who are facing food insecurity on campus. This means more students can have access to a warm, nourishing meal in a dining hall.
Community Mutual Aid Programs
One of the positive societal transformations resulting from the pandemic is the increasing interest in mutual aid programs. People who are struggling are using these groups as a means to pool their resources band together to solve crises. Many cities have created hubs that facilitate collaboration, which includes sharing of food, storage, and transportation resources to meet the food needs of their neighbors. Food producers (including farmers), residents, and politicians often work together to foster these programs, enabling access to those who need it most.
Cities and college campuses alike have become hotbeds for community garden locations —Rutgers University in New Jersey is reported to have the largest organic students-led community farm. On campuses across the country, community gardens allow students to tap into the healing, sustainable, and eco-friendly activity of growing their own fruits and vegetables. Gardens across the country often supply their harvest of produce to food banks, creating a systemic supply chain for feeding a community’s hungriest residents.
Need-Based Scholarships to Help Low-Income Students
Financial aid is a common source of money to fund college, and increasingly, need-based scholarships are helping low-income students to also fund the necessities of life. Many scholarships allow recipients to use leftover funds (after tuition is covered) toward other education-related expenses like room and board and meal plans. Most scholarships will include details on how the award can be used, so be sure to check with your financial aid office to research these need-based scholarships.
Impact of Food Insecurity on College Students
At its most basic level, hunger drains your body of the energy needed for living and prevents your brain from working effectively. In fact, hunger and health are intimately connected, and people suffer from hunger frequently are far more likely to suffer chronic diseases. But food insecurity inspires impacts well beyond the physical, and these range from fears of social ridicule to anxiety and beyond. Here are some of the common consequences of food insecurity, especially as experienced by college students.
Not knowing where your next meal will come from or constantly worrying about how to pay for the next meal take a heavy emotional toll on a college student. While research strongly ties hunger with anxiety and depression, it’s also known to increase feelings of stress, anger, and violence which can trickle down to more negative feelings and perceptions. College is already a time of heightened emotions, so adding food insecurity to the mix creates an even greater emotional strain.
Food insecurity goes beyond hunger; for example, those who are food insecure are often eating foods that are bereft of nutrition because they’re far cheaper. Experts conclude that this leads to nutrition deficiencies and other physical ailments, including “…hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. Food insecurity has also been linked to increased smoking, lower physical activity, and poor sleep.”
Food insecurity obviously takes a physical and emotional toll, but did you know that students facing this reality are also less likely to graduate? When studying a group of students, scientists from Johns Hopkins found that less than half of the food-insecure students they studied — 44% — were able to complete their degree. By contrast, their food-secure classmates completed degrees at a rate of 68%. Part of the cause of this academic strain may be due to hunger-inspired lower cognitive function and concentration challenges.
College is universally depicted as a time of social opportunity, but when you are food insecure, the reality can be far bleaker. Many students find themselves having to turn down invitations to hang out with friends because they can’t afford to go out to eat with the group. Others report that they’re less likely to have friends or time for socializing, usually because they must work to afford food. Many students are concerned about the stigma of being food insecure, although many of their peers are in the same boat.
The Bigger Picture: How to Fight Student Hunger
Ready to take on the fight to quell student hunger? Given how common food insecurity in college is, this is a fight worth undertaking. But what can you do — personally? Clearly, there are many nuances underpinning the root causes of food insecurity, which means that tackling the issue will often involve more than just solitary or grassroots efforts. Students, colleges, non-profits, and governing agencies all have a role in the fight against student hunger. Let’s spend some time examining some of the most impactful ways to take on this social injustice.
Affordable Student Housing
The skyrocketing cost of college often goes hand in hand with the exorbitant fees associated with student housing. Therefore, colleges that are looking to make an impact on campus food insecurity should first turn to the creation of affordable student housing. Many schools are identifying innovative solutions on this front; the University of Utah, for example recently leased a building from another college, converted an on-campus hotel to student housing, and asked alumni in the area whether they’d be interested in renting to current students.
Affordable Food for Students
With meal plans outside of the realm of possibility for many food-insecure students, colleges need to create healthier, affordable options for their students. Former Cornell scientist Kathryn Hoy, consulting with Oregon State University on-campus food offerings, suggests lowering the cost of fruits and vegetables and increasing the cost of less nutritious food to make up the difference. She also favors bundling food items to make a healthy, appealing combination meal.
Living Wage for Student Workers
One obvious solution to food insecurity is to offer well-paying student employment on campus. To offer context, the UC Davis Center for Poverty and Inequality Research published a study in 2022 focusing on how raising the minimum wage could potentially help alleviate food insecurity and expand nutritional equity in the United States. Therefore, colleges that offer more opportunities for student workers to earn enough money to afford campus meal plans or healthy dining options could go a long way toward helping their student communities.
Make Tuition More Affordable
Tuition at public and private universities has been increasing year over year, and so are the numbers of students suffering from food insecurity. Therefore, a simple solution to food insecurity is a reduction in college tuition. State governments have the ability to cap tuition rates for public universities (currently, 11 states have state policies to cap or freeze tuition at four-year colleges, and 10 have the same for two-year colleges), and non-profits focused on rectifying social injustice can focus on offering more needs-based scholarships that cover academic-adjacent costs like room, board, and food.
Offer Subsidized or Free Childcare for Students
Because food insecurity occurs more frequently for college students who are parents, another solution for college students may involve access to affordable childcare. Drexel University’s Natalie Shaak supports the idea of mutual childcare aid as a solution for food insecurity on college campuses, suggesting that colleges provide on-campus childcare for students staffed by students and supported by the college’s education program. Federal subsidies for childcare at public colleges may be another obvious solution.
Education and Awareness
Sadly, and perhaps in part because of social stigma, being “hungry” carries many connotations. However, food insecurity is more than hunger — students facing it often aren’t physically hungry, but the accessible, cheap food don’t always contain necessary nutrition. The more we spread this message about the realities facing college students, the better positioned we all can be to effect change. Colorado State University offers “Hunger Awareness Information” on its website, and more colleges should provide similar educational resources.
Many of the necessary reforms that must take place to address food insecurity are rooted in policy. As such, ideologically independent non-profits are suggesting sweeping policy changes, including eliminating SNAP restrictions for college students, encouraging state governments to invest in benefits navigators and on-campus food supports, and automatically enrolling Pell Grant recipients in SNAP benefits. While these are aimed at the federal and state level, even local governments can enact regional policy changes — like allocating space for community gardens and food pantries.
When it comes to college, the students are the customer. Therefore, you hold immense power when it comes to addressing issues related to equity and social justice. Students on campuses across the country are responsible for banding together to create food pantries and campus refrigerators, community gardens, and donation programs for student meals. If you’re passionate about this topic, research groups that may already exist on your campus — or create your own.
Additional Resources to Help Students in Need
If you’ve read this far, there’s a good chance you’re ready to help — or you’re in need of assistance. We’ve got you covered. Below, find links to resources, blogs, articles, podcasts, and videos. You’ll learn more about innovative solutions, and you’ll also find ways to seek out help in your community.
- 4 Tips for a Successful College Food Drive: Move for Hunger, a national non-profit, offers these tips specific to college campuses, as well as more information on starting your own food drive.
- 15 Best Food Security Podcasts: Check out this list of the best food security podcasts from thousands of podcasts on the web and ranked by traffic, social media followers, and freshness.
- College and University Food Bank Alliance (CUFBA) Campus Directory: Wondering if your school has a food pantry or resources for college students? Use this directory to find CUFBA-affiliated schools.
- College Hunger Summit: Chobani, VICE News, and Swipe Out Hunger recorded this panel discussion to bring awareness, attention, and action to the issue of students facing food insecurity on college campuses.
- College Student Eligibility for SNAP/Food Stamps: Here you’ll find a list of questions and links that will help you determine if you’re eligible to apply for SNAP or food stamps.
- College Student Hunger: How Access to Food Can Impact Grades, Mental Health: This collection of research looks at who on college campuses lacks access to food, especially health foods, and how going hungry can impact students’ grades and mental health.
- Find Free Food and Groceries: Enter your zip code to find food banks partnering with Feeding America. You’ll find locations and hours of nearby food distributions.
- Food Assistance Programs: Get information on various food assistance programs for individuals and groups from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Programs include SNAP, WIC, and more.
- Food Insecurity on College Campuses: In this episode of the Measure of Everyday Life podcast, Katharine Broton of the University of Iowa and Kathleen O’Neill of Bunker Hill Community College in Boston address food insecurity in college.
- Food Security Panel | Food Security Summit: Learn expert insights on food insecurity as part of this panel featuring The Hill’s Steve Clemons and leaders from the Brookings Institution, Cornell University, and more.
- Hunger On Campus: This detailed report from Students Against Hunger fosters a more expansive understanding of campus food insecurity and its impact on students.
- Hungry to Learn Film Panel Discussion | Diversity Symposium 2021: Watch this panel discussion on the film “Hungry to Learn.” The panelists discuss food insecurity at Colorado State University and systemically across universities.
- Promoting Food Security in Higher Education — Virtual Dialogue Panel: The University of British Columbia brought together industry experts for a discussion about food insecurity and its impacts on post-secondary students.
- Running a Campus Food Pantry — Student Government Toolkit: Are you interested in starting your own food pantry? Here’s a guide from the Student Government Resource Center.
- Swipe Out Hunger: This website details how the non-profit works with colleges and universities to design and implement a range of anti-hunger programs across a 550+ campus network.
- The Campus Hunger Project Podcast: Listen to the stories of hunger and advocacy, told by college students across the nation, for a taste of what food insecurity looks and sounds like.
- The Food Dignity Podcast: Listen in on conversations that draw attention to hidden hunger, confront the issues around food dignity head-on, and raise awareness about access to nourishing food for everyone.
- The Issue of Hunger on College Campuses: In this episode on The Takeaway podcast, Ryan Healy from Feeding New York State discusses what college administrators can do to help students on campus, and what state and federal policies can do to expand SNAP access for students.
- USDA National Hunger Hotline: This clearinghouse assists low-income individuals or communities by providing food assistance and other nutrition and social services information. You can also call 1-866-3-HUNGRY or 1-877-8-HAMBRE or text 914-342-7744 with a question containing a keyword such as “food,” “summer,” “meals,” etc. to receive an automated response to resources located near an address and/or zip code.
- What To Do When You’re Going Hungry in College: This first-person account from a college student offers a variety of ideas, from talking to your financial aid office to researching campus resources.
Interview With an Expert on College Hunger
Q: What are the potential consequences of food insecurity on the academic performance and overall well-being of college students?
A: We know that children are affected by food insecurity, and obviously, the same is true for college-age students. We know that anyone facing food insecurity has less energy to focus on what is facing them in life, and that certainly includes college students. College students are many times working and going to school, giving them even less time to access much-needed resources. Having a lack of access to nutritious food can make it difficult for students to concentrate and do well in school, which can certainly affect their ability to be successful.
Q: What strategies or initiatives have proven effective in addressing college student hunger and food insecurity?
A: We have seen a significant increase in community food pantries at colleges across the country, which is a great step to make food available to students.
Q: How can colleges and universities collaborate with local community organizations, food banks, or government agencies to create comprehensive support systems for food-insecure students?
A: This part is really important for success. Educating students about what resources are available to them is also very important. Letting students know that they may also be available for SNAP benefits is another great strategy. Having pantries conveniently located on campus is key.
Q: How can colleges and universities raise awareness about the issue of college student hunger and reduce the stigma associated with seeking assistance?
A: Significant outreach to students about what is available is important. Stigma is battled by treating this like any other resource. It should be as commonplace as talking about financial support for the school. The more people who access food, the less that stigma is an issue.
Q: What long-term strategies can be implemented to create sustainable solutions for addressing college student hunger and promoting food security on campuses?
A: More access to pantry resources as well as SNAP benefits and other food resources.
Q: How can colleges and universities develop campus-wide policies or guidelines to ensure that food-insecure students have access to resources and support throughout their academic journey?
A: Acknowledging the problem is the first step. The “starving college student” idea used to be a badge of honor for students, and that needs to change. Making accessing resources commonplace is one of the first steps.
Q: How does the high cost of textbooks and educational materials impact the ability of college students to afford nutritious food?
A: College is expensive, and any expense that takes away from food resources can make this problem worse. In that way, programs that offer help to pay for tuition and books can also help.
Q: What role can student organizations or clubs play in raising awareness about college student hunger and organizing initiatives to address the issue?
A: Encouraging students to volunteer at food banks and food pantries can help educate students on the issue, which is also helpful. Getting more people involved always move the issue forward.
Q: How does food insecurity among college students impact their mental and emotional well-being, and what support services are available to address these issues?
A: Food insecurity is a drain emotionally. Many colleges offer mental health support as well. This is another area that much-needed outreach and stigma reduction are very needed.