The Hidden Hunger on College Campuses

By Laura McKenna 

College conjures up images of all-you-can-eat dining halls, midnight runs for pizza, tubs of ice cream in the dorm-room fridge, and ethnically sensitive burritos. I remember working in the dishroom of a dining hall as a student and grabbing trays of half-eaten burgers and pancakes from the conveyer belt, dumping all the mess into large trash cans. If anything, college is associated with an excess of food, where students gain the “Freshman 15.”

Recent research on hunger at colleges opens serious questions about those assumptions. Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of education policy and sociology at University of Wisconsin, last year surveyed 4,000 students at 10 community colleges across the country, including Delgado Community College in Louisiana, Essex County College in New Jersey, and Western Wyoming Community College. Her study, published in December, suggests that more than half of all community-college students struggle with food insecurity.

Goldrick-Rab assessed the food-security status of these students using six standardized prompts from the U.S. Department of Agriculture asking about their nutrition habits and experiences with hunger. Roughly half—52 percent—of the respondents reported marginal to very low food security, while the remaining students reported high security. Specifically, one in five respondents had very low food security, which meant that they had “multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.” Twenty-two percent of the respondents indicated that they had cut the size of their meals or skipped meals and were hungry because they didn’t have enough money for food.

In addition to the survey, Goldrick-Rab in an interview said she conducted focus groups with students at these colleges and tracked 50 students over six years. She found that two types of students struggle with food insecurity. The first group of students were in poverty before they began college; in their case, hunger and poverty is a preexisting condition. The second includes those who were in the lower-middle class before they started college and were forced by their higher-education expenses to deal with food insecurity for the first time.

The study of hunger among community-college students is noteworthy in large part because of evolving demographics in higher education. As Elizabeth Lower-Basch, a policy director from the Center for Law and Social Policy, explained, people often think that college students are aged 18 to 25, childless, and attending a four-year institution. But that’s not the experience of the typical college student. In fact, most students are older, low income, raising a family, or attending a community college, she said: “The nontraditional student is the new normal.” And ultimately, according to Lower-Basch, “we shouldn’t be surprised that this group is reporting food shortages.” Roughly half of American high-school students qualify for free- or reduced-price meals—kids whose needs don’t change when they go to college.

While a sample of 10 colleges might seem low, Goldrick-Rab said her research is the only work to date that has quantified the scope of the food-security problem among college students; the federal government for its part doesn’t collect this information on student financial-aid forms. Goldrick-Rab suspects that this problem is broader than she was able to capture in this study and feels that more research is needed to fully understand the extent of hunger on college campuses.

Hunger has a large impact on learning and college retention. For one, there is the obvious physical problem that an empty stomach makes it hard to learn in class. For another, it may force students to make decisions that interfere with completion. They might work longer hours at their jobs or take long breaks from their studies to earn the money needed to buy dinner, for example. These decisions make it harder for students to get to graduation day in a reasonable timeframe.

The relatively low cost of community college aside, students rarely receive enough support from the government or their school to cover living expenses, including childcare, housing, and food. Amy Ellen Duke-Benfield, a senior policy analyst at CLASP whose research also underlines the gravity of the hunger problem at American colleges, cited a several-thousand-dollar gap between financial-aid packages and the amount of money students need to cover those expenses. Those expenses, she said, comprise almost two-thirds of the total costof attending a community college.

Many have difficulty accessing government food programs, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance ProgramOnly 20 percent of the students in Goldrick-Rab’s study who had low or very low food security received SNAP. That’s in part because SNAP, which is still colloquially known as the food-stamp program, has work requirements. And while there are exceptions in the rules that would enable some students to qualify for the program, the provisions can be extremely confusing: To apply, for example, students might have to go off campus to the government office, endure long waits, and then fill out excessive documentation. (Some advocates believe that school attendance should count toward the work requirements in SNAP for college students. CLASP’s December 2015 report, “Bolstering Non-Traditional Student Success,” discusses other reforms that would assist low income college students.) Lots of students opt to avoid taking out loans to support their meals in fear of going to debt.

Many community colleges are striving to streamline the application process for food stamps and come up with other ways to address student hunger. In addition to helping students complete SNAP paperwork, according to Duke-Benfield, some campuses are training staff in the financial-aid office to advise students about the range of government programs, while others are training their academic faculty to recognize students who may be hungry or homeless and to counsel them. More schools are putting questions about food and housing into the admissions forms; on-campus food pantries, even at four year schools, are popping up around the country.

Take the Thrive Center for Financial Success at Holyoke Community College in Massachusetts, which was created last February to assist students meet their daily living expenses in order to increase retention rates. Crystal Colón, its coordinator, said the school, which is also creating an on-campus food pantry, had to respond to the large numbers of students who were hungry and living in cars. The Thrive Center helps nearly 600 of its 6,000 students obtain clothing vouchers, acquire emergency cell phones, and completing SNAP forms; it provides information about hours and locations of local food pantries.

Bergen Community College, meanwhile, asked the Center for Food Action, a nonprofit group that provides emergency services for low income residents in Northern New Jersey, to create an on-campus food pantry for students in 2014. Lisa Pitz, a program director for CFA, said that administrators were concerned about the number of students that were checking into the health center due to poor nutrition. Some hadn’t eaten in several days. Pitz provides three days of groceries to students, as well as staff and adjunct faculty, every Tuesday and Thursday and provides microwavable meals to students who need immediate sustenance. These students also need help with housing and bus fare to get home that day, so she connects them with local governmental agencies that provide social services.

“These aren’t people who are sitting around not doing anything,” Pitz said, “These are kids who are working full time and going to college and still are hungry… I just hope that these students get good paying jobs when they graduate.”

Goldrick-Rab plans to expand her survey to study more students in 2017 and to monitor their access to food. Ultimately, she wants people to understand that students can’t pass exams if they are hungry.

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