Food Insecurity Is A College Student Issue

Food insecurity is defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as "a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life." It refers specifically to the lack of monetary resources to purchase enough food for the household.

In grade school, there are a number of resources to access for students whose families struggle with feeding them. Free and/or reduced breakfast and lunch meal programs, summer bagged lunches, even weekend meals are being provided by organizations like End 68 Hours of Hunger. I'm now a recent college graduate, have lived on my own and struggled to support myself on a part-time job even with the assistance of my middle-class family. Is it so hard to believe that students who come from food insecure families might remain in a food insecure state as they grow older, and struggle to pay for their education on top of that?

Here's a quick overview of the difference in perception between hungry little kids and hungry college students: I typed "food insecurity in the US in elementary schools" into Google and immediately, the first couple of results included articles from the USDA, well-researched findings about links between lack of nutrition/regular meals and behavioral and performance issues in young children. One article came up about a heartwarming story where a woman started an after-school meal organization after hearing about kids not eating regularly from a teacher in her book club.

However, when I put into the search bar, "food insecurity in the US on college campuses," the results were different. The articles didn't focus on government-backed programs or inspiring stories of people in the community stepping up to help end the crisis. Instead, the results were stating that there was indeed an issue, and providing some statistics. Of course, acknowledgment is the first crucial step. But it doesn't seem like a whole lot is being done about it besides . . . discussing?

I came across an article by Lisa Henry from the University of North Texas called "Understanding Food Insecurity Among College Students: Experience, motivation, and local solutions" where she explores the experience of food insecurity among college students, effective ways to begin to solve the issue, and who is affected, which reads: "Food insecurity among college students is higher than the national average of 12.7 percent. Prevalence studies report a range of 14-59 percent of students being food insecure at some point during their college career."

The next article I came across was from the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition & Physical Activity titled "Hungry to Learn: the Prevalence and Effects of Food Insecurity on Health Behaviors and Outcomes over Time among a Diverse Sample of University Freshmen" written by Meg Bruening and colleagues. She explained a variety of reasons why students are in food insecure situations. "These are times when students may have run out of food provided by parents, have exhausted dining hall meal allotments, and/or have experienced higher stress due to demands of final exams and projects," she noted. She argued that because the variety of students is constantly expanding and changing, and student needs with it, public health professionals should collaborate with schools to screen for students who are struggling with food insecurity. She also touched a bit on colleges possibly putting an emphasis on checking for food insecurity towards the end of semesters/quarters, when students are usually the most stressed.

The New York Times opinion writer Sara Goldrick-Rab came out with an article in January of this last called "It's Hard to Study if You're Hungry" where she discusses the scope of the food insecurity issue in colleges and what has been happening recently to address it.

"In New York, [a] forthcoming study by researchers at the City University of New York reports that 30 percent of community college students and 22 percent of four-year college students are food insecure" (Goldrick-Rab). Goldrick-Rab then suggested that a reasonable next step is for colleges and universities is to open free stores for food and other needed supplies. University of Washington - Tacoma actually has one of those, ran by the Office for Equity and Inclusion, called The Pantry.

"The Pantry exists to provide supplemental, nutritional, and culturally relevant food as well as hygiene items to all UWT students on campus" is the explanation on the website. The Pantry takes donations of course, but is also partnered with Nourish Pierce County to provide non-food items as well.

Going back to Goldrick-Rab's article, she brought up another issue about meal plans in particular that I found really interesting. "Last fall, students at two of the nation's premier historically black colleges, Spelman and Morehouse, went on a hunger strike. They weren't protesting policymakers in Washington. They were pressuring their schools to allow students to donate unused meal plan vouchers to those on campus who needed them."

Before I transferred to UWT, I went to The Evergreen State College. I had a meal plan there, and I remember my roommate and I volleying back and forth about how frustrated we were that our remaining meal plan dollars from the current quarter didn't roll over into the next. It was always a race at the end of every quarter to eat five meals a day to use as much of our money as possible before the remaining got taken. We never found out where it went. Basically, not only are schools charging huge amounts of money to get a meal plan to begin with (and there's no guarantee that it will account for all dietary needs/restrictions, which is another problem in of itself), but they're stealing the money we're paying for that food, and not being transparent about where it's going. Goldrick-Rab goes on later in the article to say that both Spelman and Morehouse agreed to provide 14,000 free meals per year to students who need them.

Large rallies like this, while crucial to change, aren't always high up on our lists of priorities, however. But there are other ways to help that don't include something that collaborative and time-consuming. Donating whenever possible to organizations like The Pantry and other local food banks is so, so needed. If you spot a community fridge somewhere, make a mental note to drop something off in it next time you pass by. I sincerely hope that UWT and college campuses across the nation can truly start to be as inclusive of students as they proclaim to be. by taking into account their lack of ability and resources to fulfill basic needs like getting enough food to sustain themselves.

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