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College Students Are Hungry

January 19, 2021

“I’m hungry all the time.” It’s a refrain uttered by one surprising group who can’t always afford to eat or have stable housing – college students. The pandemic is exposing a stark reality: more are pursuing degrees with fewer resources.

On college campuses, survey data (PDF) from 38,000 students fielded by The Hope Center in Spring 2020 shows that 38 percent of students at four-year institutions and 44 percent of students at two-year institutions are experiencing food insecurity and 15 percent and 11 percent, respectively, are facing homelessness due to the pandemic. Imagine trying to focus on school when you’re not sure where you’ll find your next meal or if you’ll have a safe place to sleep at night. Sadly, these aren’t academic questions for millions of students. They’re an everyday reality.

Moreover, there are stark racial/ethnic disparities that, if not remedied, will further drive inequities in college attainment. Food insecurity disproportionately affects certain groups of students: first-generation college students, racial/ethnic minority students, international students, those from immigrant backgrounds, those who identified as transgender/gender non-conforming, and those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. According to the report, the black/white gap in basic needs insecurity was 19 percentage points.

This January, as our country observes Poverty in America Awareness Month, the plights of millions of students are foremost on our minds. How can higher ed —and those of us who are part of the education ecosystem—tackle poverty and inequality on campus?

Pandemic Brings Hunger to Light

With average net tuition prices approaching $15,000 a year for public community colleges and more than $19,000 a year for public four-year institutions (Forbes), even students from middle-class families are hard-pressed to make ends meet. The price of attending college is a leading reason why food and housing insecurity was widespread before the pandemic—and now it is escalating.

But this isn’t the only issue at play. The number of non-traditional college students – those who are older or have families and other obligations – is going up. Government assistance is tough to receive. Students must sometimes make the difficult decision between paying rent or paying tuition, as they don’t have enough money for both – and the meal of the day quickly becomes the old college standby of ramen noodles.

It’s no secret that going to college is expensive, but students shouldn’t have to starve or be homeless to advance their education.

Campuses are Meeting the Challenge

While the problems are stark, many institutions are rising to meet the challenge with food pantries, meal plans, and other hunger and homeless initiatives.

  • The College and University Food Bank Alliance (CUFBA) reports that over 640 schools, from community colleges to Ivy League universities, have food pantries on campus. Michigan State University offers a year-round food bank with specific distribution times throughout the semester. At Columbia University and University of California at Berkeley, any student with a school ID is welcome to the pantry to take various food items for free. At Northeastern University, the student-run Northeastern Mutual Aid network helps peers with food and other necessities.
  • The Any Hungry Husky program at the University of Washington offers a pantry, food security grants of $100, a summer produce program, free CSA shares through volunteering, and special bulk buy discounts.
  • Manhattan College in New York City supports “Jaspers” in need with a food pantry, is part of the national Swipe Out Hunger program (students with extra meal swipes or dining dollars donate them to their peers), and a Food Rescue program that advertises campus events that serve food to cut down on food waste and increase event attendance.
  • The Alabama Campus Coalition for Basic Needs includes 10 universities in Alabama working together to solve the problem of student food insecurity. Members include Alabama A&M University, Alabama State University, Auburn, Jacksonville State University, Troy University, Tuskegee University, the University of Alabama, University of Alabama at Birmingham, University of North Alabama, and University of South Alabama.
  • Kennesaw State University’s Campus Awareness, Resource & Empowerment Services (CARES) provides year-round housing, temporary housing, a campus pantry stocked with both food and toiletries, one-to-one case management support, temporary work assignments, and scholarships for students who experienced homelessness or are currently dealing with housing insecurity.

Together, We Can Make Things Better

While food pantries at college campuses start to address the issue, we all need to do more. Here’s what you, as a higher education leader, can do.

  • The first step in creating positive change on campus is to survey to determine the extent of student food insecurity on campus.
  • Let students know whether they’re eligible to receive Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, available to millions of low-income individuals. With more than half of America’s college students fitting in the “non-traditional” student category, many are eligible because they fit other eligibility criteria. Students who attend college and work at least 20 hours a week, take care of a dependent household member at least half of the time, or are a single parent enrolled full-time with a child under age 12 are eligible for SNAP.
  • Establish or expand food recovery organization groups so that food does not go to waste, and offer food scholarships, food sharing apps, and campus dining programs that allow transfer of unused meal credits.
  • Partner with a local anti-hunger non-profit partner to operate and scale up food banks where students may receive food and hygiene products for free, as well as housing referral services.
  • Get student organizations involved. Organizations from honor societies to Greek fraternities and sororities are looking for a way to help their fellow students. Hold a campus meeting with group leaders and give them the contact information necessary to help.

At Apogee, we just celebrated our third year of employee fundraising for Foster Angels and broke our previous records. Employees are donating $10,400 to help three young adults who are transitioning out of the foster care system into college. There are approximately 650,000 kids in foster care and the odds are stacked against them: 50 percent don’t graduate from high school and less than 15 percent have access to appropriate technology at home. This year, three students are recipients of Apogee employees’ generosity to ensure they start their post-secondary education with the resources they need. They’ve already beaten the odds because they graduated from high school and are among the small group who attend college.

Every young person deserves a shot at a better future, and college is an important launchpad for that future. Let’s join hands and do everything in our power to eradicate college student food and housing insecurity. Let’s ensure that no student who earns passage to a university’s community should be deprived of a meal or bed.

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