Ailts: Widespread hunger across college campuses calls for institutional relief

Food insecurity isn’t “living like a student.” It’s a problem that needs addressing.

Ellen Ailts

It’s hard to exercise your mind on an empty stomach. But many college students are doing just that: skipping meals, surviving on ramen and peanut butter, jumping at the chance to attend a catered campus event — all while trying to succeed in their college careers. Three well-balanced meals a day can seem like an impossible feat.

Food insecurity, or the lack of reliable access to sufficient quantities of affordable, nutritious food, is a more pervasive problem on college campuses than some may realize. It’s been considered a bigger problem at two-year colleges and state universities, but new data suggests that 20-33 percent of students at four-year colleges are also food insecure. On average, around 12 percent of U.S. households experience food insecurity.

It isn’t as though students aren’t attempting to feed themselves. The 2016 Hunger on Campus report stated that 56 percent of food-insecure students work, 75 percent receive financial aid and 43 percent are enrolled in a meal plan. Depending on the school, students may receive additional support through campus programs. Here at the University of Minnesota, any registered undergraduate, graduate or professional student can visit Nutritious U Food Pantry at Coffman Memorial. Launched last fall, its doors are open Tuesday to Thursday during the last week of each month. Swipe Out Hunger is another successful initiative combating hunger on campus; students who are willing and able can donate up to 10 unused dining hall meal swipes to students experiencing food insecurity. And those donations are needed — a study conducted at the University of Minnesota showed 10 percent of students report experiencing food insecurity, and 17.5 percent of students report anxiety about running out of food.

It goes without saying that hunger is a deterrent to academic success — grades and test scores suffer, as well as a decreasing chance of graduating. Hunger on Campus reported that 32 percent of students who experience food insecurity said it negatively impacts their academic performance. Despite students often cutting food budgets before other expenses, more than half didn’t have enough money to buy textbooks, according to the report.

More colleges and universities need to implement similar initiatives, like campus work groups and food resources, to address the needs of food insecure students. Expanding student access to federal, state and community food assistance is also important in helping food insecure students. Increased access to public benefits is more effective when coupled with other services, like financial aid, counseling and advising. It’s crucially important to increase awareness, reduce the stigma associated with receiving food assistance, provide information to students about assistance options and help students navigate assistance programs.

Colleges and universities should be assisting their students in any way possible to provide a pathway to academic success and general wellbeing. The first step is to gather more data on the extent of the problem on individual campuses and then determine how to best address those needs. As more young people from all economic backgrounds are attending college and dealing with the increasing cost of college, it should be a top priority for institutions of higher education to address the basic needs of their students.