Transitioning into college is a big step in anyone’s life. You’re meeting new people and trying to make friends, adjusting to classes, and living independently for the first time, all at once. A new factor, however, is adding an additional pressure onto young adults. According to the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, 48% of college students polled reported being food insecure within the previous 30 days. How are nearly half of college students going hungry, and we hear almost nothing about it?
It is apparent that this is a significant issue, yet, not even ten years ago, only two studies on food insecurity among college students existed. In 2009, fewer than 10 food pantries existed on college campuses, while today there are almost 600. This proves that, along with a growing body of literature on the subject, more people are recognizing what an urgent problem this is.
t is necessary to analyze these statistics to understand why this is becoming a quiet epidemic and who exactly it is affecting. Food insecurity on college campuses is more prevalent among students of color. Fifty-seven percent of black or African American students reported food insecurity, compared to 40% of non-Hispanic white students. Recent data also reveals that 4.8 million students, or a quarter of all undergraduate students, are parents and 63% of college students with children face food insecurity. And 43% of students who are parents are single mothers.
Students are facing financial difficulties in so many ways. Sixty-four percent of food insecure students report experiencing some type of housing insecurity, as well. The Department of Health and Human Services has defined housing insecurity as high housing costs in proportion to income, poor housing quality, unstable neighborhoods, overcrowding, or homelessness. While research regarding housing insecurity is less available, recent data from the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) reported that 58,000 college students indicated that they were homeless. However, FAFSA requires students show complicated documentation of their homelessness, so the actual number is likely much higher. Housing insecurity is associated with poor health, lower weight, and developmental risk among children.
What resources exist to help students shoulder to costs of living expenses and a college education? One safety net to assist low-income students is the Pell Grant, which is usually awarded only to undergraduate students. Although it does not have to be repaid, it can be difficult for low-income and food insecure individuals to receive the grant. First, the FAFSA form has to be filled out every year in order to qualify. Additionally, one’s qualification will depend on their financial need, cost of attendance, status as a full-time or part-time student, and plans to attend school. Although the maximum Federal Pell Grant award is $5,920, this may not be the amount every individual receives and, consequently, may not be enough for food insecure students, especially those who have children.
Another safety net that food insecure students can utilize is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP (more commonly known as food stamps) which provides support to millions of low-income individuals and families. To qualify, participants in the program must either have a child under the age of 6 or work 20 or more hours a week. Although 56% of food insecure students reported having a paying job, only 38% meet the work requirements for SNAP.
Forty-three percent of students who are enrolled in a campus meal plan are still food insecure. Among food-insecure students, 36% reported that they were once so hungry but did not eat because there was not enough money for food.
While campus meal plans can be pricey, it is important to understand the bigger picture: the rising cost of college. It is no secret that the cost of college has skyrocketed – between 1975 and 2015, college costs grew by more than 220% at private, nonprofit, four-year colleges and universities. Furthermore, costs grew by 294% at public four-year colleges and universities and by 218% at the nation’s community colleges.
The sticker prices of college do not account for other hidden expenses, either. Fifty-five percent of food insecure students reported that they did buy a required textbook, 53% reported missing a class, and 25% reported dropping a class due to hunger or housing problems. An individual should not be prevented from succeeding merely because they are hungry. In extreme cases, hunger can cause students to drop out of school altogether. A study of community college students in California found that nearly 8% of food insecure students planned on dropping out compared to the 3% among other students. In extreme cases, students who drop out of school because they cannot afford food expenses will then have to face paying off student debt even though they do not have a degree.
Another source that can prompt students to drop out of college is the costs of childcare for the 4.8 million students who are parents. The HOPE Lab estimates that only 5% are receiving any child care assistance. Child Care Aware of America reports that childcare for an infant can cost as much as $17,062 a year. This is comparable to tuition costs at some schools. Furthermore, the primary source of federal aid for child care nationwide comes from a grant called the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG). However, this grant provides states to develop their own eligibility requirements, which can make it difficult to qualify depending on where you live. For instance, some states require students to work, only pursue a bachelor’s degree, have satisfactory academic standings, and have a certain number of credits or hours per semester. Trying to raise a child on top of these challenges makes it extremely difficult for parents. Students who are food insecure do not have the financial means to afford childcare out of pocket, meaning that they reach for student loans to pay for it, adding to the colossal amount of debt they may already have accrued.
Considering all of these expenses, it would seem logical not to attend college at all if you are struggling with food insecurity. By 2020, however, nearly two-thirds of all jobs will require higher education. If students are too hungry to attend, this will greatly affect their future, and our country’s.
In order to fix this issue, action needs to be taken. Students at Spelman and Morehouse colleges recently went on hunger strikes to pressure their schools into allowing them to donate unused meal plan vouchers to students in need instead. Their efforts have already created change, as the colleges joined Swipe Out Hunger, a nonprofit that advocates donating unused meal credits. In other colleges, such as Humboldt State University, a student-run Oh SNAP! program hosts a weekly farm stand on campus. Farmers markets can also participate in the national “Double Bucks” program where farmers markets provide a $1 for $1 match for SNAP recipients to buy fresh produce. Additionally, campuses can get involved by creating Campus Community Gardens to provide a way to increase students’ access to fresh produce.
Nonetheless, policies need to be taken nationally in order to initiate monumental change. Policymakers can do a number of things to help these college students. There’s no question that the astronomical cost of attending college leaves many students graduating with a copious amount of student loans hanging over their head. Thus, one fix would be to reduce the cost of college nationally. Furthermore, the government can expand the SNAP program to increase eligibility for students, instead of just those who work 20 or more hours a week or have a child under the age of 6. Other safety nets such as the Pell Grant can be modified to include all low-income families. Currently, 3 out of 4 food insecure students receive some sort of financial aid; however, safety nets should be implemented to include all students who are struggling to receive their basic needs.
Change can also begin now with your help. Host food drives within your community or on nearby college campuses. Additionally, college students should fight for changes to be made on their own campuses. It worked when students at Spelman and Morehouse campuses spoke up, and change can happen when you do, too.