What It Looks Like To Be Hungry in College

Students walk between classes at their college campus in Boulder, Colorado, February 2015.

Over the past few years, the issue of food insecurity among college students has gained national attention—and with good reason. A study released earlier this year by the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice found that 48 percent of students at two-year institutions and 41 percent of students at four-year institutions experienced food insecurity during the 30 days preceding the survey.

A new study from Trellis Company provides policymakers and advocates further insight into what it looks like to be hungry while in college. The study defined low food security as a situation in which a student missed meals altogether or couldn’t afford a balanced meal. Over a nine-month period in 2017, Trellis Company followed 72 college students and found that 36 of them experienced food insecurity at some point. The study explored the lived experiences of these students; how they coped with the challenges of food insecurity; and how these circumstances influenced their academic performance.

The study’s findings should help inform policymakers and institutional leaders on how to support college students facing food insecurity. In particular, three significant insights emerged: Students are often reluctant to receive or seek help; food insecurity often fluctuates; and food insecurity can have a pervasive effect on students’ higher education experiences.

A reluctance to accept help

The study emphasizes that interventions designed to support hungry college students need to take into account that those students may be reluctant to seek out or accept help from their institution or other public or nonprofit resources. Many interviewed students didn’t consider their schools as sources of help for nonacademic needs such as food assistance, while some believed that these institutions should instead save resources for students who are in more desperate need. Other students described feeling that they were expected to project competence and responsibility and that taking food from a food pantry could hurt others’ perceptions of them.

Many students in the study also expressed reluctance to pursue public benefits such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), often because they thought either that the application process is too much of a hassle or that they would not qualify. This concern isn’t unfounded: Just 18 percent of college students qualify for SNAP—and only 3 percent actually receive it. This has prompted lawmakers to propose legislation that would expand the program to address food insecurity among low-income college students. Only two students in the study who experienced low food security reported applying for SNAP benefits. One full-time student who is also a single parent had to weigh the possibility of being approved for benefits against the loss of a couple hours of wages to fill out the application.

Fluctuations in food insecurity

While one might assume that a student is either struggling to meet their basic needs or not, the Trellis Company study shows that food security—or lack thereof—is often a fluid condition. Over the course of the study, 26 participants endured a decline in their food security, while 30 participants experienced an improvement.

The most common reason underlying a decline in students’ food security was an unexpected expense such as a car repair, a speeding ticket, or health issues affecting themselves or a family member. Students who relied on family financial support were likewise affected by unexpected events in relatives’ lives such as a layoff, business hardship, health problems, or additional expenses.

College students also reported frequently having to cut their hours at their jobs to focus on studying. Some chose to quit their jobs while others were let go. Regardless of the reason, these challenges affected their finances and therefore their food security: A decline in a student’s financial security typically caused them to start eating irregularly or consuming lower-quality meals in an effort to reduce costs.

Additionally, students might experience improvements in food security because they received more financial help from friends or family; adhered to a strict budget; cooked at home; or, in rare cases, received help from SNAP benefits or additional financial aid. Certain changes in housing situations—usually students moving in with family or a partner—also alleviated pressure.

These circumstances demonstrate that just one small change in a student’s life can determine whether or not they are food secure. College officials should take these changing circumstances into account and ensure students are aware of their colleges’ financial resources such as emergency funds as well as receive clear information on accessing SNAP benefits.

A pervasive effect on students’ higher education experience

Food insecurity negatively affected the lives of students in the study both academically and socially.

Some food-insecure students reported having very little free time because they tried to earn as much money as they could by working long hours in addition to attending classes and studying. Tight finances also constrained social activities due to the costs involved, which the study said can “have direct academic implications” because social activities can provide a reprieve from stress and a sense of community. To avoid this problem, some students reported spending beyond their means to foster relationships, putting them at greater risk of food insecurity.

Students enduring financial and academic stress often reported losing sleep, eating poorly, and becoming ill—all of which are likely to affect their academic performance. Poor academic performance can have its own financial repercussions, as earning lower grades might result in losing a scholarship. One full-time student described what it was like to struggle with housing, food, and school at the same time:

I wouldn’t be able to focus or I would lose sleep, I would just be really anxious. And so I would be lying in bed trying to sleep and I couldn’t because I was stressing out about money or where I was gonna get it, and I wouldn’t be doing homework because I needed to sleep. And so, I would just be angry because I was wasting time being awake.

The study noted that “[w]hen students were able to become food secure, they often reported increased sleep, reduced stress, and higher levels of energy.” In other words, food security is directly related to students’ ability to thrive in college.

Conclusion

The authors of the Trellis Company study recommended that colleges be more attuned to students’ basic needs by, for example, improving financial aid and emergency aid; making academic schedules more accommodating for those who work; providing child care services; and training faculty and staff to watch for signs of poverty. They also recommended opening food pantries in prominent locations and making them available to all students in an effort to help destigmatize poverty. Finally, they suggested providing students with coaching and workshops to help them learn financial and food preparation skills, although some studies show that this approach has not proved effective in changing behaviors.

Certain policy reforms at the federal level—such as updating SNAP eligibility rules and clarifying eligibility requirements to accommodate more college students—would help alleviate food insecurity in college. More broadly, however, the prevalence of food insecurity among college students is a symptom of the increasing unaffordability of higher education in America. As CAP proposed in “Beyond Tuition,” policymakers must grapple with students’ living costs—including food and housing—in any effort to make college affordable. A system that allows college students to struggle with food insecurity as they try to focus on their studies shortchanges them of their opportunity to build a better life.

Dante Barboy is a former intern for Postsecondary Education at the Center for American Progress.

Author’s note: This column uses “food insecurity” and “low food security” interchangeably throughout.