Opinion: Student food insecurity: the complications of depression and tuition

Student leaders from the UMN Swipe Out Hunger have designed three steps state and federal policymakers need to take to fight student hunger.

Gigi Otten and Trey Feuerhelm

Stella is a 20-year-old junior here at the University of Minnesota and for the last three months, she has been unable to work. Stella was hospitalized and diagnosed with major depressive disorder and PTSD.

“I am slowly starting back up at my job but even when I was working as much as I could while in school, my [hours were] still under the SNAP requirements. I’d love to utilize resources available to me to assist with feeding myself and possibly housing,” Stella said. “I have approximately $700 in bills every month, and I am struggling to stay afloat.” 

Stella faces unique challenges, but her experience of hunger is shared with thousands on campus. Close to one in five University students report running out or worrying they will run out of food before they have the money to buy more, according to the 2018 Boynton College Health Student Survey Report. Marginalized groups like BIPOC, LGBTQ+, parenting and international students, however, enter college with even higher rates of food insecurity. Student leaders from the UMN Swipe Out Hunger have designed three steps state and federal policymakers need to take to fight student hunger:

One of the most effective anti-hunger programs is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). College students are categorically ineligible for this benefit but can receive support if they meet SNAP’s general financial and non-financial requirements, plus additional student-specific criteria. One of the potential student-qualifiers includes working 20 hours per week. With the beginning of the pandemic, widespread job loss encouraged Congress to waive work requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents — college students, however, were not included. Recognizing that college students also experienced high rates of job loss and other barriers, the recent COVID-19 Economic Relief Bill temporarily expanded access to SNAP for college students. This legislation takes into account the unique challenges that college students face and provides them with the resources they deserve, helping them stay in school and finish their degree. This change temporarily allows students qualified for work-study to be eligible for SNAP regardless of if they have a work-study job. The second change created a new qualifier for students who reported an estimated family contribution of $0 for the current academic year. SNAP is housed within the farm bill, which is under revision in 2023. With or without a pandemic, food insecurity persists as a systemic failure, and we cannot backtrack on progressive policies after COVID-19. We ask that the recent adjustment to SNAP requirements be made permanent. 

Secondly, when food insecure students with a 15 credit course-load and a 15-hour workweek don’t qualify for SNAP, how do they find the money for food? Before college, many students used the K-12 National School Lunch Program (NSLP) to receive free or reduced meals at school. For each of the last five years, nearly 320,000 students qualified in Minnesota; for each of the last nine years, 22,000 students walked away from food assistance when they crossed the high school graduation stage. Graduation is supposed to be a celebration, but for too many, it is the start of their financial burden. As a University of Minnesota student, I took a four-credit, online summer course costing more than $2,000. Working 55 hours a week only just paid for class, rent and groceries. Should choosing to buy food and housing be the barrier that keeps seniors from attending college? We call for the introduction of a bill to extend the NSLP to post-secondary education.

Third and finally, data without stories erase the complex, qualitative factors that explain why higher education institutions have succeeded in normalizing the habitual, systemic failure that’s nearly one in five University students to be food insecure. Statistics can empower students if they are presented with the contextual data that, while not easy to graph, give a holistic understanding of why they are struggling.

The University’s periodic basic needs surveys have been crucial to our mission. Few student leaders, however, have access to their specific University data that legislatures love and always ask for. Without surveys, universities can hide behind ignorance: If you don’t count how many hungry students you have, then you don’t have any. Student advocates who combine statistics with their experience and knowledge can protect student anonymity while creating a powerful, collective voice. We call on the Department of Education and USDA’s Food and Nutrition Services to mandate student basic needs surveys.

The pandemic forced a critical critique of current policy and spurred us to ask for support for students choosing between a college course and a semester of groceries. The current higher education system sets impassable barriers. To make college more accessible, policymakers should begin by endorsing these three items: 1) Make recent SNAP changes permanent; 2) Extend the National School Lunch Program to higher education; 3) Mandate universities to complete student basic needs surveys.

This OpEd was submitted by Gigi Otten and Trey Feuerhelm, co-presidents of  Swipe Out Hunger-UMN, a chapter of student advocates within a national nonprofit striving to meet the needs of the most marginalized students while addressing the root causes of college food insecurity.

This OpEd essay has been lightly edited for style and clarity.