“Food Insecurity” is the New Hunger & it's Prevalent on U.S. College Campuses

With college affordability being a constant struggle as well, it’s no wonder that many students go hungry.

Elizabeth Hoyt

November 17, 2015

“Food Insecurity” is the New Hunger & it's Prevalent on U.S. College Campuses

Food. It’s one of the most basic human needs, yet for 49.1 million Americans, hunger is a constant struggle. Many of these Americans are also students – the people in your courses who you’d least expect. It makes sense, though. With college affordability being a constant struggle as well, it’s no wonder that many students go hungry.

“Food insecurity” is the lack of nutritional food. It’s the experience of not knowing if you’ll have enough to pay for your next meal, and often means having to choose between paying for necessities. The issue arises when many students opt to go hungry because they need to use their limited funds for other life necessities, like rent, tuition and other student needs.

Unfortunately, there’s no comprehensive national data to show exactly how many students go hungry. Research studies, however, like the 2014 report from Feeding America, show that one in 10 adults seeking emergency food assistance is a student, and two million of those students are full-time.

Apparently, part of the issue in recognizing that the problem does, in fact, exist is rooted in history. Historically, students who received higher education opportunities were considered “haves,” which makes the association of hunger and students exist less than it should. Nowadays, this isn’t the case. Students now come from all walks of life, thanks to financial aid and scholarship opportunities.

While that is a great thing, not being able to afford basic needs while in college is not. Not only is it an issue of sacrificing basic needs for an education, but it also leads to issues within education. After all, how can a student possibly focus in class or perform well on exams while struggling with hunger pains?

Everyone knows about the “starving student” stereotype – the coffee-fueled, late night studier, who eats Ramen on the regular. But, for many students, this life isn’t a choice. It’s not glamorous or humorous – it’s a daily battle with the reality of the situation they’re in: a life they cannot afford. This issue is especially rampant at colleges and universities that enroll a high percentage of first-generation or lower-income students that likely cannot afford college expenses in addition to their other needs.

How many students experience “food insecurity?”
Prior studies vary immensely in results, with reports ranging anywhere between 14 and 60 percent in findings of students experiencing food insecurity. Since there’s a lack of concrete data, some schools have taken on their own studies and surveys to help alleviate issues on their individual campuses.

For example, UCSD realized they had an issue on campus after a study issued revealed that 35 percent of their students were forced to skip meals “often” or “somewhat often” because of financial reasons. As a result of the survey, the school took initiative to plan the opening of a food pantry at their student center by their 2015 Winter Quarter, with the help of the University of California Global Food Initiative.

This year’s University of Oregon survey found that 59 percent of its students had “recently experienced” food insecurity. These numbers are unacceptable, but at least these schools are doing something to help. Keep in mind, the examples mentioned are just a couple of the schools who recognize there’s an issue and are trying to do something about it. There are plenty more that need to do so.

These aforementioned examples demonstrate that the issue is not only real, but begs for something to be done on every campus – not only about hunger but “food insecurities” leading to a lack of proper nutrition for students.

Okay, there’s an issue. But, why haven’t schools done more to help?

College administrators seem to be coming increasingly aware of the issue but, with a lack of students coming forward due to insecurities about the issue, it can be difficult to figure out exactly how much of an issue exists at a particular school.

For starters, there’s still a stigma that many hungry students battle. It’s much easier to complain about rising tuition costs and affording books than it is to reveal a personal struggle with affording basic living expenses, like food. Too often, people see student hunger as a “rite of passage.” We need to remember, however, that there’s a difference between a tight food budget and no food budget at all.

As a result of this stigma, many students don’t seek help because they don’t want to have to admit they need help. That, coupled with the assumptions that students experiencing food insecurities either isn’t that serious or is the norm, makes it extremely difficult to count how many students actually live with food insecurity on a regular basis.

But, as many research studies, countless surveys and “college confession” pages show, the problem is widespread. These resources demonstrate that students, ashamed of their battle with hunger, anonymously describe their experiences because they fear judgment or a lack of understanding from their peers.

“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. It’s not only a moral issue but also a curricular and academic issue,” said Nate Smith-Tyge, director of the MSU Student Food Bank in a Washington Post article.

He’s right. Schools performing their own hunger surveys and studies are slowly becoming more aware of such issues – but, there’s not enough hard data on student hunger on a national scale.

Initiatives Helping to Alleviate the Problem
Thankfully, activism groups and colleges are working to change both the perception and the situation. Through awareness efforts, food banks, campus food voucher programs and campus pantries, many students are able to seek out the help they so desperately crave.

This year, for the first time, the national hunger-relief charity, Feeding America plans to include a breakdown of college students seeking food assistance in its quadrennial survey.

Another hunger-relief organization, The College and University Food Bank Alliance (CUFBA) , was co-founded by America’s first student-run food bank at Michigan State University and the Oregon State University Food Pantry. CUFBA focuses on “alleviating food insecurity, hunger, and poverty among college and university students in the United States.” The organization’s site details its vision: “To alleviate the barriers and challenges associated with food insecurity and hunger so that college and university students can remain in school, and ultimately, earn their degrees.” As of November 12, 2015 the organization has 238 active university member institutions and has estimated that there are other, unaffiliated campus food panties in the United States.

The Michigan State University Student Food Bank, the first of its kind, estimates that today there are 121 food pantries, which have opened up in recent years to combat the new issue of “food insecurity” amongst students. To put the current numbers in perspective, there were only four on-campus food pantries in 2008. And, the number of campus pantries that currently exist simply isn’t enough to solve the issues.

The MSU Student Food Bank alone “distributes about 50,000 pounds of food annually to MSU students and their families (that’s 10,020 5 lb. bags of food)” and “serves over 4,000 clients per year,” according to its website. While these initiatives certainly help, they’ll be the first to tell you that there’s plenty more that needs to be done.

What can I do to help?

• Post on your college’s social media sites if you have extra, unused meal points
Plenty of students have meal packages that go unused and that another student could benefit from. Instead of letting your meal program points go to waste, look on your college blogs to see if there’s another student in need – unfortunately, there probably is because they aren’t that hard to find.

• Don’t let businesses throw good food away – ask them to donate it!
Instead, donate to a food recovery program that can distribute it to those in need, like the Food Recovery Network (FRN). The FRN began in 2011 when students in Maryland noticed that the leftover food in their campus dining hall was being discarded, rather than given away to those in need. Today, the FRN aims to be on at least 180 campuses, making food recovery “the norm and not the exception.” You can learn more about volunteering at an FRN chapter, talking to local businesses about donating food and supporting the FRN (just one, $10 donation helps an FRN chapter recover 10 meals!) here.

• Contact your college administrators about establishing a campus food program
If you determine that your campus doesn’t have a hunger-relief program, contact your school administrators to ensure they’re doing something about the issue. A little activism and awareness goes a long way. If interested, The College and University Food Bank Alliance created a helpful toolkit as a resource, where you can learn about creating a campus food pantry.

• Share personal experiences with any issues to combat shame amongst peers
Creating awareness of the issue starts with you! Share any personal experiences you or someone you know has had with “food insecurities,” letting other students know that they are not alone and shouldn’t be ashamed or embarrassed to come forward.

• Share information about your campus’ hunger-relief program(s)
A lot of students aren’t getting help because they aren’t even aware of campus hunger-relief programs, either. If you know your school as a program, share the information with others to help create awareness.

• Volunteer with your school’s campus food program
Many colleges and universities, who have campus hunger-relief programs, like The MSU Food Bank, are student-run and operated. They’re usually in need of students – whether it’s a job or volunteer position – to help with their programs and efforts.

• Donate to campus food programs across the nation near you
These programs are often exclusively funded and operated by charitable donations. When you have extra funds or food, seek out a campus food program to see how you can help.

No matter how you decide to help, it’s important that you do. These are your friends, your classmates and your peers. It’s time to stick together to ensure that each and every student, not only receives the same educational opportunities, but is fully able to take advantage of the opportunities granted.

Students experiencing “food insecurities” aren’t able to do this – let’s make sure that all students in America receive the support necessary for a brighter future.

Remember, if you’re a student living with “food insecurity” or hunger issues or you know someone who is, there’s absolutely nothing to be ashamed of – many students are experiencing the same problem. There is help available, even if it’s not on campus yet. Visit Feeding America’s website to find your local food bank.

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