Hunger 101: Food Banks Are a Rising Presence on College Campuses

Aid continues to be a necessity for some students at institutions of higher education, despite the economic recovery.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Feb 6, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

The college clichés of late-night bowls of 25-cent packages of ramen and minds so filled with Sartre they can churn out term papers fueled only by coffee make the problem of student hunger easy to ignore. But food insecurity on campus is less a put-on affectation of la boheme lifestyle and more the sad reality of students across the country who are having to choose between paying for one necessity or another when, in states such as Arizona, Georgia, and Washington, college tuition has risen as much as 70-plus percent.

With college costs rising, the problem of food security is cropping up on campuses across the country. Feeding America found in a 2014 report that one in 10 hungry adults seeking emergency food assistance is a student—two million of whom are studying full-time. Luckily, American student activism is alive and well and responding to the problem: The College and University Food Bank Alliance, cofounded by the country’s first student-run food bank at Michigan State University, counts about 50 universities as members and estimates that there are another 50 unaffiliated on-campus food pantries across the country. In the last three months alone, numerous local news outlets have reported on college food banks opening in Kansas, Missouri, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. This is a new state of college hunger affairs—according to the MSU Food Bank, there were just four on-campus food pantries in the early days of the Great Recession.

“My friend was living in his car because he couldn’t afford rent. He was having to skip meals,” said Colin King, a student at the University of California at San Diego. After witnessing his friend’s dire situation, King became part of the committee to open UCSD’s first food bank, which will be ready to provide students with nonperishable goods such as canned soup, beans, and cereal on Monday.

The shelves will initially be stocked by a trip to Costco, with future goods provided by the San Diego Food Bank. The need for an on-campus food pantry became clear after a survey of UCSD students found that the experience of King’s friend wasn’t an anomaly: 25 percent of students had skipped meals “somewhat often” and “often” for financial reasons.

Those involved with the food pantry initiative, including faculty, students, staff, and administration, have now spun off into a group called the Food Insecurity Advisory Committee to address broader, longer-term issues of food access on the UCSD campus, such as supplementing financial aid packages to account for food, accepting food stamps on campus, and implementing larger on-campus gardening efforts so students can grow their own food, King said.

“The food pantry is the bare minimum. It’s just for emergencies, and that really shouldn’t be happening. There should be more institutionalized solutions to this problem,” he said. All 10 schools in the UC system are engaged in addressing the issue of food security both on and off campus through the UC Global Food Initiative.

The very idea of college students needing this kind of assistance is a head-scratching notion for some. Isn’t being at an institution of higher learning proof you’re one of the country’s haves?

“Poor people and people who struggle with food insecurity didn’t used to go to college,” Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told MSNBC. “If they were going to get education, they were going to get the free part and that’s it. But there’s been such a strong cultural push and a strong economic push for college that people with no means are pursuing it.” Students from low-income families or who are the first in their family to attend college are the most vulnerable to food insecurity, The Washington Post reported.

“We have to educate people who are looking in from the outside and don’t really understand this concept. They think, ‘Oh, students are privileged,’ ” said Katie Freeze, chair of the UC-Santa Barbara Food Bank, which has been in operation since 2011. “I’ve talked about the food bank at alumni events and have gotten some fairly hostile responses. ‘Why are you helping college students? You should be helping people in developing countries.’ And it’s telling people, ‘Hey, students are coming from diverse backgrounds.’ ”

Similar to the rise of suburban food-stamp usage, upending lingering notions of urban welfare queens, the rise in student hunger gives it a diverse face. As both King and Freeze explained, there are international students; students receiving federal food assistance who can’t use their benefits in the dining halls or other places on campus where food is sold (other schools are working toward accepting food stamp benefits, as well); students skipping lunch to pocket $8, living almost exclusively off Top Ramen, and choosing between food and paying bills. The food bank in Santa Barbara may have bunches of kale available on occasion, but this is no artisanal antihunger movement. Some students save money by opting out of the on-campus meal plan but then struggle to eat with the money they have left over after other expenses are paid. Graduate students, who may be shouldering the costs of school while also supporting families, are also susceptible to food insecurity. At Michigan State University, more than half of those frequenting the food bank are graduate students.

Another part of student hunger education, Freeze said, is for the students themselves. In addition to providing food, the UCSB Food Bank holds cooking demonstrations and healthy food budgeting workshops and actively works to destigmatize the need for food assistance. “It’s really difficult if you’re going through a struggle, having trouble accessing food, and you think you’re the only one,” she said. “We’re letting students know, ‘Hey you’re not alone, and we’re a service to help you through this hard time.’ ”

“Student hunger is something that is so overlooked,” she continued. We need to dispel this idea that college students are always necessarily privileged, that their parents are funding them fully, that they’re not struggling to make ends meet. We need to do our best to help them live up to their potential, get their degree, and eat. I think that’s a pretty basic human necessity—a human right.”