Hunger on Campus


Even as gourmet and gluten-free choices expand at some elite college eateries, Sara Goldrick-Rab and Katharine Broton have published an excellent, if deeply disturbing, article on “The Hidden Hunger Problem on Campus.”  For many it may be hard to believe, but the evidence is clear that a significant portion of the student body at both 2-year and 4-year institutions are facing serious problems simply getting enough to eat.  Here’s some of the data:

A recent Wisconsin HOPE Lab survey of ten community colleges across the nation indicated that 52 percent of the more than 4,300 students responding qualify as food insecure. At Southern Maine Community College, that figure is 31 percent. At the City University of New York, researchers estimate that at least 100,000 students have trouble getting enough food. The nonprofit Feeding America reports that 10 percent of their 46.5 million clients are college students, and 31 percent of those students say they’ve had to choose between paying for food and paying for education.

Oregon State University just became one of only a handful of colleges across the nation to participate in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), allowing students who receive SNAP benefits to purchase food at a market on campus. In Massachusetts, 25 of the state’s 28 public campuses are now assisting students in need of food assistance. There are more than 250 food pantries operating on college campuses around the country today whereas there were just a handful less than ten years ago, thanks in part to the efforts of the College and University Food Bank Alliance.

A University of Oregon survey this year found that 59 percent of students at Western Oregon University had recently experienced food insecurity. The figure was 21 percent in a 2009 report on students at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 14.5 percent of U.S. households fall into that category, which is associated with lower academic achievement.

“Between paying rent, paying utilities and then trying to buy food, that’s where we see the most insecurity because that’s the most flexible,” said Monica Gray, director of programs at the College Success Foundation-District of Columbia, which helps low-income high school students go to college.

Indeed, food banks are becoming increasingly common on campus.  Numerous local news outlets have reported on college food banks opening in Kansas, Missouri, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania.  The number of university food pantries has shot up, from four in 2008 to 121 today, according to the Michigan State University Student Food Bank. “Campuses across the country are starting to realize that there is that sector of people who don’t know where their next meal is coming from,” said Nate Smith-Tyge, director of the MSU Student Food Bank. “It’s not only a moral issue but also a curricular and academic issue.”

At Michigan State, more than half of those frequenting the food bank are graduate students.

“My friend was living in his car because he couldn’t afford rent. He was having to skip meals,” said Colin King, a student at the University of California at San Diego. After witnessing his friend’s dire situation, King became part of the committee to open UCSD’s first food bank, which will be ready to provide students with nonperishable goods such as canned soup, beans, and cereal.  The need for an on-campus food pantry became clear after a survey of UCSD students found that the experience of King’s friend wasn’t an anomaly: 25 percent of students had skipped meals “somewhat often” or “often” for financial reasons.

“We have to educate people who are looking in from the outside and don’t really understand this concept. They think, ‘Oh, students are privileged,’ ” said Katie Freeze, chair of the UC-Santa Barbara Food Bank, which has been in operation since 2011. “I’ve talked about the food bank at alumni events and have gotten some fairly hostile responses. ‘Why are you helping college students? You should be helping people in developing countries.’ And it’s telling people, ‘Hey, students are coming from diverse backgrounds.’”

“Poor people and people who struggle with food insecurity didn’t used to go to college,” said Goldrick-Rab, a professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “If they were going to get education, they were going to get the free part and that’s it. But there’s been such a strong cultural push and a strong economic push for college that people with no means are pursuing it.”

Goldrick-Rab and Broton rightly call this “a national crisis,” and they propose “a straightforward solution: Expand the National School Lunch Program to include community colleges.”  They argue:

Many community colleges meet the same criteria as high-poverty K-12 schools: about half have student bodies that have at least 50 percent Pell Grant recipients. Most Pell recipients have family incomes at or below the current school lunch eligibility cutoff of 185 percent of the poverty line. The mechanisms in place for operating and delivering food to elementary, middle, and high school students can transfer to the community college setting. Whenever undergraduates are coming to school to attend class, they can receive a free, hot meal for lunch.

Education always involves some sort of sacrifice of the present for the future, but asking students to go hungry while they pursue a degree is not only unproductive, it’s inhumane and cruel.  This proposal should definitely get a hearing, but will community colleges be enough?  Maybe we should consider expanding the program to public 4-year institutions as well.

6 thoughts on “Hunger on Campus

  1. In all of my seminars, I always brought food for my students to consume: usually a cake or doughnuts and fresh fruit accompanied by coffee and tea. The frenzied gusto observed as they approached the table to partake convinced me that, indeed, some of them were not getting enough to eat.

    • I was on an international consult and noticed that faculty would not attend meetings unless there were sandwiches, not just cookies and coffee; students came to seminars with the expectations that there would be a boxed meal and a certificate of attendance at the end. There are stories of students living in garrets and scrambling for food since the days of Dickens and maybe before?

      Yes, there is a food crisis on campus and yes, we need an interim solution for an immediate problem. But that is tackling the symptom and addressing a very local issue. What is amazing is that the entire academic community does not seem to see this as a larger social issue and across all disciplines try to deal with the issue which has migrated to and made visible on campus.

      It’s not just food.

      • There is also another background problem, and that is the quality of food on campuses. As Auxiliary Services units outsource more and more of their food service to national and chain providers, whether the companies that manage cafeterias or those that install blocks of junk food outlets, the overall nutritional quality of food deteriorates. On my campus, there are several dozen food outlets, but almost all of them are fast food dealers. The result is a de facto food desert insofar as the only food available is harmful to health. One side effect has been a change of the social mix at large facilities such as our student union. Few faculty members dine in this facility owing to the lack of wholesome victuals. The result is a kind of food apartheid, with students gobbling up rubbish while faculty either bring lunches or head to restaurants; faculty-student exchange suffers as a result.

  2. I can believe every word of this. Here at LSU,we are now maintaining a food pantry (read, “soup line”) for graduate students. Sympathetic persons, especially faculty members, deposit food supplies in barrels for graduate students who, owing to lack of support, must forage for food. The result is a kind of zombie state among young intellectuals who wander the halls at night recovering edibles left by those who have enough to sustain life. It’s a disgrace! — Kevin L. Cope

  3. Pingback: Our Hungry, Homeless Students | ACADEME BLOG

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