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The hidden costs of food insecurity on campus

Many students go without—and not by choice
University Business, November 2018

Since 2000, the net price of college has increased while real family income has stagnated. As a result, most students and their families have fewer resources but face higher out-of-pocket costs to attend college, with some making difficult trade-offs between paying for college or meeting their basic needs.

Recent estimates indicate that approximately half of U.S. college students experience some form of food insecurity, which can hinder academic achievement and undermine an investment in higher education.

Katie Broton, a doctoral candidate in the department of sociology and a member of the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has been studying food insecurity on college campuses for a number of years.

She says most of these students work and receive financial aid, but only a fraction receive public or private assistance to help make ends meet.

Food insecurity has been a problem in education for a number of years. Is there any indication that it is getting better or worse?

That’s a good question. As you say, this is not a new issue, but unfortunately the U.S. Department of Education does not systematically track food insecurity or hunger among college students, so it’s very difficult to know how that trend has been changing over time.

I am optimistic that they will soon be collecting data on the topic, but we don’t yet have that historical look.

What we do know is over the past several decades, the price of college has increased.

Over that same period of time, need-based financial aid has been stagnant, so what we see is a growing net price of college. And that net price has increased at the same time that family income for most Americans—those in the middle and lower classes—has been stagnant.

Now, for over half of our undergraduates, they and their families have to devote more than a quarter of their total family income toward the price of college each year.

It seems food insecurity is more prevalent on the community college side.

Yes. Food insecurity exists at all sorts of higher education institutions and it affects students of all types, but some groups do appear to be at greater risk. They include students from low-income families, students of color, former foster care youth, LGBTQ students, and students from marginalized or historically disadvantaged backgrounds.

What we know, given our highly stratified higher education system, is that students from those groups tend to be overrepresented at our nation’s community colleges.

Many people are surprised to learn the extent of the problem on four-year campuses as well, despite the availability of things such as meal plans.

Nationally, only about 13 or 14 percent of undergraduates live on campus. They’re certainly in the minority, but even among students who live on campus and might have access to meal plans, those meal plans are not always sufficient for a number of reasons.

Sometimes the price is prohibitive, so students are able to afford only a limited number of meals per week, for example.   

Many students need to work outside college to make ends meet. You cite an interesting statistic that even with the extra demands on their time, they still put in as much study time as other students.

That’s right. There’s new evidence out from the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice, and in their latest report, they show that students who are basic needs insecure—those students who are struggling with food and housing—are spending about the same amount of time going to class and studying. But they are also spending more time caring for others, so they are spending less time sleeping and in leisure activities.

We know about overworked and underpaid adjunct faculty. Do they suffer as well from food insecurity?

My research focuses on the students, but there are other scholars who are looking at the problem of food and housing insecurity as it relates to faculty and other groups. We know that at food pantries on college campuses across the nation, some of them are open not only to students but also to faculty and staff. This is an issue that’s affecting the community at large.

For many students in the K12 space, food insecurity issues are compounded by the stigma of being seen as needy. Does a similar problem exist on college campuses?

Certainly the issue of stigma is a very real one on college campuses across the nation, and that’s why I think it’s so important to not only talk about what colleges are doing to respond to the problem, but how they’re doing it so it might be replicated.

This is an area where implementation really matters. It’s not just saying you’re going to start a food pantry, but it’s critical to plan how to implement that food pantry. Where is it going to be located on campus? How is it going to be advertised?

It’s really important to have students as part of that conversation and part of that planning process because they’re the ones who can really guide us in helping to understand how we can address stigma on campus and in the community.

Some of the most promising interventions that I’ve seen are those that are woven into the fabric of the college community, and are part of what it means to be a college student on that campus.

Our colleges and universities provide many different types of supports for students, such as math tutoring or a writing center or free flu shots.

We need to encourage higher education leaders to think about how helping students meet their basic needs can be part of what it means to serve students in our college community.

You’ve mentioned Swipe Out Hunger, a program in which college students can donate their remaining meal plan points to food pantries. What about others?

There are a number of homegrown programs that help students eat on campus in the college cafeteria. According to the College and University Food Bank Alliance, there are over 600 colleges that now have food pantries on campus.

Colleges are also implementing emergency grant aid programs. There’s a growing body of research that shows that providing students with emergency grant aid, often a few hundred dollars, can really be the difference between staying in school versus dropping out.

We also see colleges trying to leverage their local community and state resources—that might be collaborating with a local private charity to help students get some assistance or helping students access and draw down on the public social safety net.

Some colleges help students figure out if they’re eligible for those types of resources and then help them apply and obtain either public or private assistance to help make ends meet.

When I work with colleges in thinking about how they can better support students, I encourage them to think broadly about the full cost of attendance, which includes tuition and fees, room and board, books and supplies, and personal expenses.

Programs that support open educational resources or book rentals, for example, can help students save money that they could apply to their food budget.

What can institutions do to make students aware that these programs exist, and that they shouldn’t be afraid to come out and ask for help?

One way is for colleges to find out what’s happening on their own campuses. Ask students, either through surveys or focus groups, how they are managing their housing and food concerns, and where their challenges and strengths are.

Part of that includes a signaling effect that this is an issue the college is aware of and knows about. For example, faculty members are often required to include several statements on a course syllabus, such as an academic integrity policy or a sexual harassment policy or a resource list of services.

Many of us across the nation now include a statement about support for students who are struggling to make ends meet—whether it’s the food pantry or an emergency aid program on campus—on a syllabus.

Even that small paragraph might signal to students that, “Hey, this is something I’m aware of, and we’re working toward helping students meet their needs.”


Tim Goral is senior editor of UB.