Educators Are Fighting College Food Insecurity

Kraft mac and cheese might dominate students’ pantries, but colleges nationwide are trying to change that.
(Photo: Paper Boat Creative/Getty Images)
Jul 14, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Gwendolyn Wu is an editorial intern at TakePart and a junior at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

A starving college student’s diet may spark images of surviving on Cup Noodles, but for nearly half of the 240,000 students at the University of California’s 10 campuses, imagination is reality. A report released Monday on food insecurity concluded that four in 10 students in the statewide system have no consistent access to “high quality and nutritious” foods.

Of the nearly 9,000 UC students surveyed, lower-income students were more likely to be food insecure than their higher-income peers, and nearly one in five students experienced “very low food security,” including skipping meals because of limited resources. In response, the UC Office of the President pledged to fund more systemwide antihunger initiatives.

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As colleges around the nation enroll more students from disadvantaged backgrounds, advocates question how well universities support lower-income students on campus. Nationwide, the campus hunger rate is estimated to hover around 50 percent, according to a 2015 study from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. In 2011, the City University of New York published a study that found nearly 100,000 students in the CUNY system experience some form of food insecurity.

College students aren’t the poster children for hunger. Researchers have conducted few comprehensive studies of on-campus food insecurity, and when they do, students feel ashamed to admit that they don’t have enough to eat. A student at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who conducted her own survey of food bank clients found that 38 percent of pantry users knew at least one person who didn’t use food banks because of the fear of stigma, according to study coauthor Katie Maynard.

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There have been eight comprehensive studies on food insecurity at individual college campuses nationwide since 2006, according to Maynard, and the data produced shows inconsistent levels of food insecurity. While the data has been erratic, “students have also been more vocal in sharing their experiences and have made staff and faculty aware of this issue” in recent years, Maynard wrote in an email to TakePart.

What’s for dinner can take a backseat when students are worried about paying tuition and finding affordable housing. Of those surveyed in the UC study, 43 percent reported purchasing less healthy processed foods that are easier on wallets over more expensive and less shelf-stable products such as fresh fruits and vegetables. While some student hunger is driven by financial concerns, there’s also a population of middle-class young adults who are newly fending for themselves, and between poor planning and lack of cooking skills, food insecurity can be an issue for them too.

On UC campuses, antihunger advocates have for years been working to change what they can, both for lower-income and middle-class students, and their efforts will be bolstered by UC President Janet Napolitano’s $3.3 million pledge to fund food resources for students.

“We have a commitment to providing food provisioning workshops, housing planning, financial literacy, linking existing emergency resources and crisis support, a quick cheat sheet staff know about to direct students to contacts at hand, and targeted messaging to make sure students are aware of what they can access,” said Tim Galarneau, cochair of the UC Global Food Initiative Food Access and Security Subcommittee.

The UC system actively tries to combat the problem through programs such as food pantries and nutrition classes. At UC Santa Barbara, students and staff have converted parts of the campus into a sustainable farm. The programs aren’t designed, however, to handle the heavy influx of students who need healthy, wholesome meals.

“By design, pantries are set up for emergency provision of foods rather than ongoing, sustained use,” Maynard said. “That said, there are a variety of reasons why the pantries cannot fully solve the problem. At the foundation, the pantries address the symptoms of food insecurity rather than solving the root causes.”

Some students and advocates think universities could afford to offer more to their students. If the problem of campus hunger goes hand in hand with other financial issues, such as high tuition and expensive housing, some see temporary food aid as an insufficient solution.

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“As the state that has the world’s eighth-largest economy and the most profitable in the U.S. at a whopping $2.458 trillion, why is our state vastly disinvested in higher education?” asked Hannah Houska, a UC Santa Barbara student. “Three point three million is a good start for food insecurity in specific, and I am grateful, but if the administration really wants to show a commitment to the overall well-being of students, it starts with lobbying for state reinvestment.”

The new funding will be used to implement a number of programs proposed by the UC Global Food Initiative Food Access and Security Subcommittee, such as mobile kitchens and a food-voucher benefit program. At the UC Board of Regents meeting next week, subcommittee cochairs Galarneau and Ruben Canedo will present additional findings on student food insecurity. Galarneau said that initiative engages with students in food research and coordinates with campuses statewide to look at the problem from different angles.

“We’re looking long-term to establish tools to measure the student experience,” Galarneau said. “We want policy partnerships and inter-institutional experiences in the country looking at what’s been invisibilized—the struggle to get their basic needs met as students.”