Sky view of Union College

How Does Food Insecurity Affect College Students?

You pass a group of college students rushing to class, hear their whirlwind of laughter and catch a flash of smiles as vibrant as the stickers on their laptop cases.

What can’t you see? That first student you passed is thriving academically, while his roommate is struggling to pass two of his courses. Another student skipped dinner yesterday to pay rent, and their classmate is worried about how she can afford to replenish the empty pantry at her apartment.

Does your institution have starving college students? Statistics say yes. As shocking as it may seem, it is likely that at least one-third of your student population struggles with food insecurity silently, and numbers are on the rise nationwide.

By implementing strategic resources to address hunger on campus head-on, university leaders can create a food-secure campus and provide life-changing support to their students. Discover how you can help below.

what is food insecurity

What Is Food Insecurity?

More than 35 million people in America do not know where their next meal will come from. A recent brief by Feeding America projects that food insecurity levels may grow to 42 million by the end of 2021.

Food insecurity is a person or family’s inability to obtain enough nutritious food for each household member to live a healthy, active life. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) identifies four main dimensions of food security:

  1. Food supply is the physical availability of food, determined by stock levels, net trade and level of production.
  2. Food access is the ability to access or financially afford food, from the market to the household.
  3. Food utilization is the variety, quality and nutritional value of ingredients and preparation practices.
  4. Food stability is the consistency — or lack thereof — of stable access to a nutritious, energy-fulfilling food supply.

Even if a person’s food intake is adequate at the moment, they can still be considered food insecure if that access is unstable or temporary. Economic factors, political instability, climate and weather conditions can have a seasonal or unexpected adverse effect on food security.

Food insecurity can be a long-term or temporary situation and occurs due to a variety of factors, including:

  • Low income
  • Employment instability
  • Disability and health
  • Ethnicity and race
  • Community safety

From there, food insecurity can range in severity. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) separates food security into four distinct ranges:

  • High food security: A family with high food security can easily access and afford nutritious food for every meal, for every member of the household.
  • Marginal food security: A person with marginal food security may occasionally feel anxious about having enough food in their home but generally experience few, if any, changes in the regularity of meals or quality of food.
  • Low food security: Households with low food security may not go hungry or reduce food intake but may choose to partake in low-quality meals lacking in diversity. For example, they could have food for every meal but opt for simple, less nutrient-rich options due to affordability.
  • Very low food security: Individuals with very low food security disrupt their eating patterns, reduce food consumption during meals, eat poor-quality foods and may not know where their next meal is coming from. Reduced caloric intake and lack of nutrition can result in stunted growth, wasting, weakness and poor health.

More College Students Experience Food Insecurity Than You May Think

Food insecurity is an invisible condition on campuses all across America, and it affects more of your student population than you may realize. A staggering 1 in 3 college students faces food insecurity, and many do not have access to federal food programs and other forms of assistance to provide relief.

The most extensive annual assessment of basic needs security among college students, the recent #RealCollege survey from Temple University’s Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice examined responses from nearly 86,000 students at over 100 institutions. In the 30 days preceding the survey, at least 48% of students in two-year institutions and 41% of students at 4-year institutions reported experiencing food insecurity. Approximately half of all students surveyed said they worried about running out of food and couldn’t afford to eat balanced meals.

Every day, college students do their best to improve their lives through education. For at least a third of those enrolled, normal academic pressures are complicated further by the overwhelming stress of insecure housing and meal access. For the 39% of low-income U.S. undergrads who face hunger while learning, choosing to pay for tuition or pay for food is a challenge that makes it difficult to balance school, work and health.

And the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the hunger problem. With quarantine orders affecting the operation of institutions and companies across the country, many students temporarily or permanently lost their jobs or had work hours reduced, significantly affecting their income.

At a time when the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) services would benefit them the most, students were unable to meet the 20 work hours per week to be eligible. Some states responded by implementing a temporary change to SNAP qualification requirements so more learners could qualify, and program enrollment increased more than 20%.

The pandemic may have lasting impacts on student hunger, making it all the more crucial for institutions to provide long-term food security solutions.

reasons college students experience food insecurity

Why Are So Many College Students Experiencing Food Insecurity?

While numerous factors predispose the higher education student population to the risk of food insecurity, some students are more vulnerable than others:

  • Minority students: Minorities have a higher probability of experiencing food insecurity both during childhood and in college. Black students are more than twice as likely to be food insecure than their white classmates.
  • First-generation students: Many low-income first-generation students enroll in community colleges, and they are at risk for food insecurity. At least 56% of all first-generation college learners are food insecure, compared to 45% of those who have at least one parent who attended college.
  • Housing-insecure students: College students who cannot afford stable housing often also lack financial resources for food. Students who struggle with housing consistency experience semester-to-semester changes in resources as they attempt to provide for their basic needs, resulting in a roller coaster of food insecurity one semester and housing insecurity the next. At least 30% of the #RealCollege survey respondents from four-year institutions reported housing and food insecurity within the previous year.

In addition to these risk factors, college students must also navigate increased education pricing, inflated living expenses and economic shifts. The cost of going to college has risen significantly over the past two decades. Here are just a few reasons why students struggle to afford food:

  • Tuition prices: Adjusting for inflation, college costs increased more than 25% over the past decade. As the cost of higher education has grown, so has crippling student debt, leaving many to wonder how they will afford living expenses before and after graduation. Even with part-time or full-time jobs, the rising costs of housing and tuition contribute to financial instability and food insecurity.
  • Meal plan prices: On average, colleges and universities charge about $4,500 — $18.75 per day — for a dining contract providing three daily meals for a typical academic year. That’s far more than the $9-$10 per day average a single person spends on food, meaning undergraduates spend at least twice that on campus. Many institutions require students living on campus to buy meal plans. Some students cannot afford housing and transportation costs to commute, locking them into a financial meal plan commitment they may not be able to sustain.
  • Inconsistent food availability: Students can have meal plans and still encounter times when food is unavailable. Even on a well-resourced campus with multiple dining locations, low-income students struggle to find affordable food during school breaks when dining halls close. Food services often close over spring break, during holidays and between semesters. If students don’t have access to a car during breaks to pick up meals or don’t have the means to purchase them, they may have no choice but to go without.
  • Family responsibilities: Over the past 20 years, the line between “traditional” and “nontraditional” students has blurred significantly. No longer are campuses filled with students fresh out of high school with few family obligations or work commitments. Today’s average college student is 26.4 years old. Students include young single parents, millennials caring for older parents and individuals learning a new career later in life. More than 1 in 5 students are raising children in addition to working toward their educational goals.
  • Ever-rising living expenses: When adjusted for inflation, young adults have only seen a $29 yearly income increase since 1974. Housing, rent and utility costs have skyrocketed. As the staggering increases in living and education costs continue, making ends meet becomes increasingly difficult for today’s students.

The Impact of Food Insecurity on College Students

To think critically and perform well academically, students need energy — and a lack of nutritious food deprives them of that energy. When students go hungry, they lose their ability to focus in class, retain knowledge from studying, complete assignments effectively and perform well during tests.

The impact of food insecurity on health and academic performance is long-lasting, affecting students during their college years and after graduation. The adverse effects of food insecurity reach far beyond hunger alone, including:

  • Poorer psychosocial health: A recent study indicates the harmful effects of food insecurity on students’ mental, social, emotional and spiritual health hinder their academic performance.
  • Anxiety and depression: Students with low food security are 4 to 5 times more likely to experience depression than their food-secure peers.
  • Worse overall physical health: Food-insecure students consume fewer vegetables and fruits, and their meals are usually nutrient-poor. Food insecurity decreases healthy physical activity on campus and disrupts sleep patterns. When students are deprived of regular nutrition, their energy levels, sleep and physical health suffer.
  • Inability to purchase textbooks: More than half of all food-insecure students report they cannot purchase required books or other course-required materials.
  • Lower grade point average (GPA): Studies examining food insecurity among community college students show that food-insecure students are more likely to report a lower GPA (2.0-2.49) versus a higher GPA (3.5-4.0). Institutions must recognize the link between underachieving college students and food insecurity.
  • Higher dropout rates: At least 8% of food-insecure community college students plan to drop out entirely. For students experiencing hunger or housing instability, those factors harm their academic performance, and 1 out of 4 students report dropping a class.
  • Increased debt: Students who cannot afford food and tuition may choose to take out additional loans, which accumulate interest and lead to high loan payments after graduation. The burden of higher fees can lead to financial and food insecurity after college, continuing the same condition the student tried to avoid.

what can colleges do to decrease food insecurity

What Can Colleges & Universities Do to Battle Food Insecurity on Campus?

Colleges and universities can take a variety of steps to ensure everyone on campus has access to nutritional food, including:

1. Evaluate Food Insecurity on Campus

Institutions don’t know their students are food insecure, and leaders cannot fight a problem they aren’t aware of. Many administrators think food insecurity is an uncommon exception at their campus. It is common for low-income students to live off-campus or opt out of meal plans because they cannot afford them, and college administration is exposed only to those who can afford to eat on campus.

While K-12 schools collect data and track how many students qualify for food assistance, universities and colleges may not. Higher education administration must make a conscious effort to evaluate their vulnerable students by using financial aid records and other available data to assess populations most at risk for food insecurity.

2. Adjust Accessibility to Food

Work with hospitality providers to address gaps in food coverage during breaks, when food-insecure and low-income students are most at risk for hunger. Keep dining halls and other meal solutions open and accessible for students during semester breaks and holidays. Explore solutions that work best for your student body and food providers and set up programs that promote food security.

3. Allow Meal Donations

Make every purchased meal point count. Consider implementing a program to allow students to share meal points or donate unused meal swipes from their plans to classmates in need. For example, Swipe Out Hunger works with institutions to develop easy-to-use meal-sharing solutions, helping more than 130 colleges serve over 2 million nutritious meals to date.

4. Establish College Food Pantries

Establish campus food pantries that operate with discretion, dignity and sensitivity — open-access rules allow any student to take advantage of the provided resources without required proof of income. Stock campus food banks with perishable and nonperishable goods and make them accessible year-round.

Co-founded by the Michigan State Student Food Bank — the first campus-based food assistance program in America — and the Oregon State University Food Pantry in 2012, the College and University Food Bank Alliance (CUFBA) supports college food banks. CUFBA’s campus pantry toolkit has best practices and guidelines to advise institutions on establishing outreach programs.

5. Help Students Apply for Food Assistance

Reduce the stigma surrounding food assistance by establishing campus-based initiatives to assist students with enrollment in public benefits, like SNAP. To improve effectiveness and reach, combine these assistance initiatives with other services students already use, like advising, counseling and financial aid.

Just as institutions assist students with the financial aid process, colleges should provide advisors and support to help low-income students navigate the application process for government food assistance programs.

6. Target Financial Insecurity

Financial insecurity and food insecurity go hand in hand. College leadership should take a systemic, long-term approach to examine institutional affordability. Determine targeted ways to provide economic relief for low-income and at-risk students. 

Expand aid opportunities to include emergency grants, loaner laptop programs and housing assistance. And increase existing grants and scholarships to cover unlimited meal plans specifically.

end food insecurity at college with american dining creations

Partner With American Dining Creations to End Food Insecurity at Your College

At American Dining Creations, we will work with you to prepare accessible, nutrient-rich meal plans for every student. We pride ourselves on providing customizable food services specifically tailored to each partner’s needs. We fuel learners to excel at their studies and lead us to an educated, brighter future. As a socially responsible hospitality partner, our Fresh Difference approach provides nourishing food solutions at your institution.

We see firsthand how higher education institutions are incredible drivers of change. Our culinary experts offer exemplary service to increase food security for your campus with our dining hall, multi-site and portable meal solutions.

Contact us today to learn more about partnering with American Dining Creations to deliver innovative solutions to end student hunger.