Food Insecurity on U.S. College Campuses

by Yuuki Nakayachi

College Food Insecurity:  A Lack of Data
College students have attracted attention as a group that may be at high risk for food insecurity, defined as lack of “access to enough food for an active healthy life” (US Department of Agriculture, 2017). There are three major limitations with existing data on campus food insecurity. First, most studies are “snapshots” and cannot show trends over time (Bruening et al., 2017). Second, available figures may exaggerate or downplay the actual extent of the problem because it is unclear if students who are food insecure respond to surveys more or less frequently than their food secure peers (Freudenberg et al., 2011). Finally, estimates vary widely and it are difficult to generalize. They range in scope from single-school surveys (e.g. Pia Chaparro et al., 2009) to those that include hundreds of schools (e.g. Baker-Smith et al., 2020). A 2018 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report noted that estimates of campus food insecurity ranged between 9-50 percent. The same report also found that unlike other statistics on food insecurity or education, no representative national statistics exist. The National Center for Education Statistics (a branch of the US Department of Education, DoE), which collects nationally representative data on college students, has never asked students about their access to food or other basic needs (Government Accountability Office, 2018). This is still the case in 2020.

More data is forthcoming.  The US DoE plans to gather data on college food insecurity as part of the National Post-secondary Student Aid Study, with results due in 2022 (Evans, 2020).  Other privately operated, national-level surveys also plan to include questions related to food security in their upcoming cycles (Baker-Smith et al., 2020).

College Food Insecurity:  What is Known
The best estimates of campus food insecurity are from the #RealCollege survey which have been conducted annually by the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice since 2015.  The latest (Baker-Smith et al., 2020) surveyed 167,000 (8.4%) students out of an eligible population of 1.9 million. 227 schools (171 two-year schools; 56 four-year schools) participated, the majority (90%) of which were public schools. Food insecurity at private schools, particularly for-profit schools, largely remains a black box. Hope Center researchers speculate that the problem at private, for-profit schools may be as bad or worse than community colleges.  College students attending for-profit schools tend be members of groups that are at higher risk for food insecurity.  While acknowledging these gaps in the data, this report relies heavily on the #RealCollege study because data of similar scope, scale, and quality do not exist.

The 2019 #RealCollege survey used a standard USDA tool to detect food insecurity.  It found that the proportion of food insecure students was higher at community colleges compared to four-year universities (43% vs 33%; see Figure 1). The #RealCollege data are comparable to other estimates. For example, Bruening et al. (2017) reported an average food insecurity rate of 32.9% (range 14.1%-58.8%) in published studies and 35.6% (range 12.4%-56%) in unpublished (“gray”) studies across colleges and universities.  More recently, Nikolaus et al. (2019) published a weighted average food insecurity rate of 47% among 2-year college students and 36% among 4-year university students. The estimates from the studies included ranged from 10-75%.

What Increases Risk for Food Insecurity
The strongest predictor of food insecurity among college students is low income (Freudenberg et al., 2011; Government Accountability Office, 2018). In #RealCollege, students at two year colleges (where tuition is typically lower) were more likely than four-year university students to report worrying about: food running out due to a lack of money (44% vs. 36%); running out of food due to a lack of money (36% vs 27%); reducing their food intake (i.e. eating less or skipping meals); and being hungry because of not having enough money to purchase food (Baker-Smith et al., 2020). Other studies have associated factors related to personal income with food insecurity. Receiving Pell Grants (financial aid for students from low-income households), and using Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or “food stamps”) are proxies for income and also predict whether students will be food insecure (El Zein et al., 2019).   Campus patterns of food insecurity also parallel national data showing that Black and Latino households are food insecure at disproportionately higher rates than national averages and compared to White households (Coleman-Jensen et al., 2020; Myers & Painter, 2017). Among students reporting their race, #RealCollege 2019 found a highest proportion of food insecurity was among indigenous and AIAN (American Indian or Alaskan Native) students; followed closely by Black, Hispanic, and Pacific Islander/Native Hawaiian students. Asian, Asian-American and White students reported the lowest overall rates of food insecurity (Baker-Smith et al., 2020).
Disabled students and first-generation college students have also been found to have higher risk to be food insecure in other research (Government Accountability Office, 2018). While some of these factors share some overlap with lower income, which is the strongest predictor of a student’s food insecurity status, the relationship is not completely clear.

Other Problems Associated with Campus Food Insecurity  
Students experiencing food insecurity often face other challenges meeting basic needs, such as housing. Housing insecurity refers to challenges accessing a secure, affordable, and stable place of residence. It is well known that individuals experiencing food insecurity are at higher risk for housing insecurity and vice versa (King, 2016; Lee et al., 2020).  Examples of housing insecurity include moving frequently; being unable to pay the full amount of rent, utilities, or mortgage; or living in cramped conditions.  Half of two-year college students and 35% of four-year students participating in #RealCollege 2019 reported experiencing some type of difficulties in the 12 months prior to answering (Baker-Smith et al., 2020). These statistics do not include those facing homelessness, defined as a lack of a fixed, regular, adequate residence. In the #RealCollege study, rates of homelessness were found to be 17% and 16% for two- and four-year institutions, respectively. Homeless students reported coping with a “couch surfing” strategy, staying with friends or relatives on a temporary basis (Baker-Smith et al., 2020).

Many students struggle with food and housing insecurity sporadically or in tandem (see Figure 2). Therefore, solutions must address more than just students’ lack of food. #RealCollege found that more two-year college students had experienced both food and housing insecurity in the prior year, compared to four-year students (32% vs. 20%). Moreover, college students who had spent time in the foster system were particularly at high risk for experiencing food insecurity (62%), housing insecurity (70%) or homelessness (36%) (Baker-Smith et al., 2020).

Other demographic factors found to be related to higher rates of food or housing insecurity are: sexual minorities (non-traditional gender identity or sexual orientation); formerly incarcerated individuals (59% food insecure; 72% housing insecure; 35% homeless); Veterans (41% food insecure; 55% housing insecure; 22% homeless); and parents supporting children (53% food insecure; 68% housing insecure; 17% homeless) (Baker-Smith et al., 2020).

Consequences of Campus Needs (Food, Housing) Insecurity  –
Students who struggle to meet their basic needs suffer academically. Students responding to the #RealCollege study that are food insecure, housing insecure, or homeless report grades of “C” or lower more often than their peers without these challenges (Baker-Smith et al., 2020). Other studies have found that food insecurity is significantly associated with lower GPA (El Zein et al., 2019; Maroto et al., 2015; Martinez et al., 2020; Raskind et al., 2019). Despite these GPA differences, it is still unknown if food insecure students drop out at higher rates. Should this be the case, these students’ ability to secure better-paying jobs and net lifetime earnings will be reduced (Tamborini et al., 2015) and they may be saddled with considerable education debt but no degree. Drop-out also undermines the considerable sums that the Federal government invests in higher education (Government Accountability Office, 2018).

Some studies suggest that the relationship between food insecurity and lower GPA may be partly due to mental health issues. Some studies have found that food insecure students report higher stress levels (El Zein et al., 2019) and poorer mental health (Martinez et al., 2020; Raskind et al., 2019). Interview research conducted with small groups of food insecure college students has also found impacts on psychosocial health, with food insecure students reporting feelings of stress, sadness, hopelessness (Meza et al., 2019) and overwhelming stigma and shame about struggling to feed themselves (Henry, 2017).  Other health outcomes associated with campus food insecurity include higher body weight and body mass index (El Zein et al., 2019; Hagedorn et al., 2019; Knol et al., 2017; Martinez et al., 2019); lower sleep quality (El Zein et al., 2019; Martinez et al., 2019); lower intakes of fruits and vegetables (Martinez et al., 2019); and increased likelihood of having “disordered” eating patterns (El Zein et al., 2019).

School-Level Solutions
A variety of innovative campus solutions have emerged to address the need. Among the most common are on-campus food pantries. Pantries vary in scope and size and the exact number is unknown, but the College and University Food Bank Alliance (CUFBA), a national organization uniting campus-based food pantries reports a membership of over 700 schools (College and University Food Bank Alliance, n.d.). Feeding America, an organization representing regional food banks, found in a 2019 survey that at least 129 of its member food banks was supporting anti-hunger efforts on college campuses. “Support” ranged from supplying food to assisting students to qualify for food-related benefits like SNAP (Berry et al., 2019).

Pantries appeal to college administration because they can be used to assist students quickly and flexibly (Kruger et al., 2016). Costs can be relatively modest, with a third of pantries in a national survey reporting annual operating budgets of less than $10,000 (Kruger et al., 2016). Limited resources can be stretched by partnering with a local food bank that is able to provide greater purchasing power (Berry et al., 2019). Food pantries can also be a useful point for coordinating with other on-campus offices and off-campus organizations that serve students in need, addressing their needs in a more organized manner. Pantries can also be a place for administrators to communicate with students and obtain meaningful input that can inform campus-wide efforts to better meet student needs (Berry et al., 2020).

Meal sharing programs allow students with extra meal plan credits to pool and donate these to their peers. The most prominent of these is Swipe Out Hunger, started on the campus of the University of California at Los Angeles in 2010. The organization now boasts affiliate programs on over 120 college campuses (Swipe Out Hunger, n.d.). Setting up such programs, however, requires securing buy-in from both campus food service vendors and university comptrollers (Baker-Smith et al., 2020). Food recovery programs prevent left over food from dining halls or on-campus social events from being sent to landfill. They are usually app-based. The app notifies students to the available food and its campus location (Colorado State University, n.d.; Robbins, 2019).

On-campus grocery stores are an emergent model that blends food pantry and traditional retail approaches. These stores stock a wider range of products than pantries that is not subject to donation-related supply fluctuations. They are not profit-driven, so products are usually sold at lower prices than stores (Division of Student Life, MIT, 2018). One program at Cornell University discretely delivers a subsidy (8-10%) at the point of sale for qualifying students (D’Angelo, 2017).

Finally, schools recognize that students’ needs are multifaceted in ways that often extend beyond food. Some offer cash assistance to help students pay for emergency expenses like medical expenses, utilities, or car repair bill. Loans are more commons than grants for this type of financial assistance (Government Accountability Office, 2018; Kruger et al., 2016). Other colleges have worked to streamline, centralize, and coordinate delivery of on-campus services to students in need, as well as establish processes to refer students to off-campus programs and services like SNAP (Freudenberg et al., 2019; Government Accountability Office, 2018; Kruger et al., 2016). These collaborations can be strengthened by co-locating departments’ physical offices; standardizing referral protocols; assigning students case managers; purchasing software packages to support communication and tracking; and developing other “single point of contact” approaches (Government Accountability Office, 2018).

Barriers to Participation and Policy Solutions
Besides the many supports available to students on campuses, students may be eligible for a variety of public assistance programs, at the local, state, and Federal level.  These include the Medicaid (health insurance); the Earned Income Tax Credit; housing and utility assistance; and food benefits like supplemental nutrition assistance (SNAP or “food stamps”) and WIC (Women, Infants, and Children – assistance for children and pregnant or nursing women).

However, a sizable proportion of potentially eligible students are not utilizing public assistance or school-based supports like food pantries. The #RealCollege survey found that only 40-60% of students in need were using any type of public assistance program.  The proportion reporting that they used campus-based supports, like food pantries; campus health care services; referrals to community resources; and emergency financial assistance was even lower (Baker-Smith et al., 2020).  Only 16% of surveyed food insecure students surveyed by #RealCollege were receiving SNAP benefits (Baker-Smith et al., 2020).  A GAO report estimated nearly 2 million students would have met the eligibility criteria to receive SNAP benefits did not participate in the program (Government Accountability Office, 2018)

Low participation may be partly explained by stigma. Interview research with students facing food insecurity has found that students struggle to accept public assistance or use various supports and programs because they want to avoid being stigmatized (El Zein et al., 2018; Government Accountability Office, 2018; Henry, 2017; Meza et al., 2019).  However, there also exists a widespread misunderstanding of SNAP qualification criteria by both students and college administrators. This lack of knowledge is exacerbated by the absence of clear policy guidance at both the state and Federal levels on what specific circumstances make college students eligible for SNAP benefits, thus contributing to under-enrollment (Government Accountability Office, 2018).
There is a growing body of research-driven recommendations available to decision-makers (e.g. college administrators and law makers) to guide policy development to reduce college food and needs insecurity. College administrators can lead campus-wide efforts to raise awareness of and de-stigmatize food and needs insecurity. They should inventory the breadth and capacity of the on-campus support and aid programs that they offer. It is particularly important that campuses centralize services, publicize their availability, and deliver them in a streamlined manner that reduces the barriers and bureaucracy that students are often left on their own to navigate (Baker-Smith et al., 2020; Freudenberg et al., 2019). Recommended policy changes for state and Federal lawmakers were summarized in a recent (2019) review.  They range from changes to existing policies, such as relaxing the student exemptions and work requirements for SNAP and reforming the burdensome application processes, to more ambitious legislative funding proposals such as expanding existing school breakfast and lunch programs to public universities and more generously funded Federal work-study programs (Freudenberg et al., 2019).

College Hunger Resources
• The Hope Center for College, Community and Justice (#RealCollege study)
• Feeding America: College Student Hunger Research
• College and University Food Bank Alliance (CUFBA)
• Swipe Out Hunger
• Government Accountability Office College Food Insecurity Report (2018)


Yuuki Nakayachi is a native of the Philadelphia suburbs, a Registered Dietitian, and fourth-year PhD student at the Division of Nutritional Sciences, Cornell University. His dissertation research centers focuses on community-scale public health coalitions, which are groups of organizations and individuals that collaborate around achieving common public health objectives. In particular, he is focused on the role of coordinators/facilitators and the ethics of these coalitions. Before beginning his graduate work, he was a telehealth and home care dietitian working with clients in rural western New Mexico.

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Figure 1.

Figure 1: Estimates of Food Security from #RealCollege 2019 Survey. Food insecure populations are the categories bracketed in red.
(Attribution: Baker-Smith et al., 2020)

Figure 2: Overlapping Food and Housing Needs
(Attribution: #RealCollege 2019 Survey; Baker-Smith et al., 2020)