As College Tuition Spikes, Soup Kitchens Are the New Cafeteria

The number of food banks on campuses across the U.S. has soared.
The food pantry at the University of California, Berkeley. (Photo: Facebook)
Nov 4, 2015· 3 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

It’s a higher-ed cliché as shopworn as final exam all-nighters and football fight songs: the knowledge-hungry, thrifty college scholar who fills up on ramen noodles and Spaghetti-O’s until the next well-stocked care package arrives from home.

The “starving student” rite of academic passage, however, has taken a darker, literal, and more dangerous turn.

RELATED: Death, Taxes, and Loans: Student Debt Jumped 56 Percent in a Decade

As college costs spiral and more kids from lower-income families decide to enroll, about half of students are facing a choice: tuition and books or food. And they’re skipping meals to make ends meet. Institutions from New York to California have documented the problem, along with increasing reports of students using food stamps, fainting from hunger, or eating cereal three times a day to get by.

It’s not a short-term problem, either. One survey found that 21 percent of students who picked school expenses over food did so for a full 12 months, and more colleges are opening up on-campus food banks.

“It’s the traditional narrative—that students struggle at college,” says Christopher Nellum, a senior policy research analyst at the American Council on Education’s Center on Policy Research and Strategy. “But I don’t think it’s that. I think it’s more than that, because middle-income [students] are struggling, too.”

The problem stems from several factors, Nellum says, particularly the impact of the Great Recession, which hit the poor and middle-class the hardest. That, coupled with an uneven financial recovery and stagnant incomes, has left people struggling to pay for college. At the same time, President Barack Obama and others have emphasized that higher education is essentially a requirement for a well-paying, secure job and a boost up the economic ladder, even as states cut back in the amount of aid they give to needy students.

“Whether or not folks have the means, they’re pursuing higher education,” including first-generation students as well as adults undergoing career retraining, Nellum says. “What we’re seeing is a [possible] reflection of that.”

But the problem stretches across class boundaries, he adds: Students at Ivy League schools such as Columbia University, which tend to serve middle- and upper-middle-income students, are as likely as community colleges to have students who can’t afford to eat.

But the issue is largely invisible, “We know it’s there, and I think one of the indicators is the growth of food bank associations on colleges,” Nellum says. “Institutions are looking for ways to deal with the issue.”

While there are no national statistics, and there hasn’t been a comprehensive study of the problem, research Nellum and others have compiled outlines the severity of the problem.

For example, in 2013, the College and University Food Bank Alliance provided resources to about a dozen campus food banks. Two years later, the organization is providing support to 223 food banks. According to Feeding America, an antihunger group, 49 percent of its clients who are enrolled in college are going hungry to pay for school. That parallels a 2010 City University of New York survey that found roughly two in five (40 percent) of its 274,000 students experienced food insecurity of about a year—a number that spiked higher among black and Latino students and students who held part-time jobs.

The results of studies on other campuses range from 14 percent at the University of Alabama to 59 percent at Western Oregon University, while a recent study of first-year students at Arizona State University indicated the hunger rate is roughly 34 percent.

Meanwhile, last spring, the 23-school California State University system, the largest public higher-ed consortium in the country, set aside $100,000 to research the number of its undergraduates who experience food insecurity. The system, which enrolls about 390,000 undergraduates, is dominated by low-income and minority students.

And in a 2014 survey of roughly 150,000 undergraduate students enrolled at nine University of California campuses, 26 percent of respondents said they skipped meals to save money. Last spring, UC President Janet Napolitano pledged $75,000 to address food insecurity on each campus. Food banks run by the UC system have been set up, or are in the process of being set up, on each campus.

RELATED: UC Berkeley Has a Plan to Boost Black Student Numbers After Affirmative Action Ban

At the same time, some campus organizations dedicated to feeding the hungry in their communities are finding plenty of needy students in dormitories.

“This hidden issue of students struggling with food insecurity on campus has been brought to light by several of our Campus Kitchens as one that we need to address,” wrote Laura Toscano, the director of the Washington, D.C., organization, in an email to TakePart.

“Independently of one another, several of our Campus Kitchens (12 out of 49) identified student hunger as a pressing issue and designed campus food pantries where students can access free meals,” Toscano wrote. That includes giving students in need access to frozen dinners, she added.

On other campuses, administrators are trying to solve the problem by encouraging students to use the “buddy system” and share meal plans with the needy, while students themselves are opening food banks and recovering cafeteria leftovers that otherwise would go into the garbage can. The solutions are badly needed, Nellum says, but they don’t get at the root of the problem—or help the wider public understand why it should care.

“Having people go to college is a public good,” he says. “We all pay taxes, and we’re subsidizing kids’ education. We want them to be successful.” But it’s tough for a student to learn on an empty, growling stomach.

“If a student is not able to access food or nutritional-value food,” Nellum adds, “they can’t be successful.”