Food insecurity, defined as a limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods, is an issue that is generally intertwined with a household's financial situation. This problem is prevalent in 12.3% of US households according to the USDA. An overlooked breeder of food insecurity exists on college campuses. As the prices of enrollment, housing, textbooks, and other necessities balloon ever higher, many students attempt to cut expenditures in order to simply survive as a student. Tragically, one of the most common expenditures cut is food.
There have been a variety of studies conducted on food insecurity on college campuses such as the "Hunger on Campus" study and the Temple University Survey which estimate that around 20-36% of students at two-year and four-year universities experience food insecurity. However, limitations in sample size and the lack of a national study leads researchers to believe that the actual percentage could be much higher. Food insecurity on college campuses is a multi-faceted problem that stems not only from rising college expenses but a lack of college awareness of the problem and conventional help.
While loan programs like FAFSA do subsidize the entire college plan, including room and board, tuition, and food, paying them off is a hearty goal. It is estimated that student loan debt nationwide is around 1.4 trillion. Competitive scholarships are geared toward academic and extracurricular performances rather than need. Most glaringly, there is a lack of options for reduced price or free food for low-income families or individuals. Students who were relying on free or reduced priced food in public school are often out of luck in a college environment. For many low-income children, free public-school meals were the one meal of the day they could count on being fed or receiving adequate nutrition.
Numerous food insecure students also face financial strain in a number of other areas. According to the "Hunger on Campus" study, 64% of food insecure students surveyed reported having problems paying for housing and 15% reported homelessness in some form whether utilizing a shelter or living in temporary situations with friends. The problem of homelessness is more prevalent at community colleges as opposed to four-year schools. Financially strained students also have problems purchasing required textbooks and as result may fall behind in their coursework.
Food insecurity and housing problems lead to performance deficits in both school and work. Both lack of food and lack of nutritionally rich foods lead to severe problems with memory and learning. In extreme cases, students report missing classes or having to drop classes altogether due to lack of food.
College is a massive workload already, but there are ways that financially strained students can supplement their income through part-time work. About 56% of surveyed food insecure students have part-time jobs and many more than one. Unfortunately, extra income is not always a cure for food insecurity as in college that income may be spread thin across a variety of other expenditures such as housing, laundry, and textbooks. When making a decision about what necessities to spend money on, food often takes a backseat.
Colleges can help food insecure students by acknowledging that there is a campus hunger problem and taking steps towards fixing it. Opening local food pantries up to college students or educating them about places they can go for help could help students recognize that there are solutions for them to take advantage of. Some colleges have started opening onsite pantries serving donated or day-old foods. Arlington Charities has actually recently opened a satellite pantry with Tarrant County College to address food insecurity at their campus. Lastly, colleges can alleviate some financial stress by offering flexibility in paying for or even opting out of their own meal plans. Many colleges still impose stringent guidelines requiring students to be on meal plans for a number of years as well as live in on-campus housing. Although financial aid does help cover these costs, paying them back still remains a problem, and there may well be cheaper off-campus options. Extending food stamp programs, such as SNAP, to apply to meal plans at college campuses would help alleviate some financial burdens and allow students who may have been relying on those programs to continue relying on them.
Food insecurity is a quiet problem on college campuses that is exacerbated by rising college expenditures and lack of adequate assistance programs. As many students feel a financial strain in a number of areas besides food, food is often the first cost to get cut. Food insecurity leads to poor academic performance, attendance issues, and dropouts. To combat the problem students can be educated on local programs that they can rely on for supplemental food. Colleges can also offer onsite pantry options and meal plan programs that accommodate reduced payment plans or food stamps. Lastly, recognizing and spreading the word about the problem helps keep attention on it. Donating or volunteering at your local charities and pantries helps them be able to combat food insecurity and other problems.