Report: 22% of College Students Must Study Despite Hunger

Posted By Terri Williams on November 1, 2016 at 1:30 pm
Report: 22% of College Students Must Study Despite Hunger

No doubt most college students hunger for education, but – in part because of the cost of obtaining a degree – many also must study while hungry. According to a recent report, Hunger on Campus: The Challenge of Food Insecurity, conducted by researchers at the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness and the College and University Food Bank Alliance, many students experience what they researchers call food insecurity.

The hunger report comes on the heels of several other surveys and studies on the difficult times students face. Tuition, housing, and other fees have skyrocketed, and according to the 2016 College Affordability Diagnosis, many full-time students can’t work to pay for college anymore. A survey by Wakefield Research reveals that some students cannot afford to purchase textbooks and other course materials.

But while it’s troubling to hear that students cannot afford basic academic resources, it’s alarming to discover that some cannot afford a basic human necessity: food. The U.S. Department of Agriculture measures food insecurity – referenced in the Hunger on Campus report – across three categories:

  • Moderate food security: some level of concern or challenge in accessing quality food without significant decreases in quality, variety, or quantity.
  • Low food security: quality, variety, and desirability are negatively impacted, but quantity is not.
  • Very low food security: decreases in quality, variety, desirability, quantity, as well as disrupted eating patterns due to inability to access adequate food.

Food insecurity can take many shapes, such as buying food that doesn’t last until the students are able to get more money, not being able to afford healthy meals, cutting the size of meals or skipping meals altogether because of money, and losing weight because there is not enough money.

The survey respondents reported their food security level as follows:

31% High food security
21% Marginal/moderate food security
26% Low food security
22% Very low food security


Food insecurity levels by race/ethnicity:

23% 17% White
28% 17% Asian
31% 25% Hispanic or Latino
29% 28% Black or African American


Food insecure students also tend to experience housing insecurity:

64% Food insecure students experiencing housing insecurity
15% Experiencing some form of homelessness in the past 12 months


Food and housing insecure students believe these problems have caused negative academic consequences:

55% Did not buy a required textbook
53% Missed a class
25% Dropped a class


Regarding employment, campus meal plans, or financial assistance among food insecure students:

56% Have a paying job; 38% worked 20 hours or more per week
43% Are enrolled in a campus meal plan with a campus dining hall
52% Have a Pell Grant
37% Took out student loan during the current academic year


Causes of food insecurity and the link to other shortages

According to Sonal Chauhan, associate director for membership and outreach at the College and University Food Bank Alliance, “Studies, including our own recent report, show that a significant percentage of college clients choose between educational expenses, like tuition, textbooks, and rent, versus food.”

The level of ecnomic hardship experienced by the student is directly related to the level of food insecurity. “Increased tuition has resulted in the need for stretching financial aid dollars or part-time salaries among college students, while their parents have fewer resources to help this generation of children due to the recession,” Chauhan says.

These students usually experience lack in other critical areas as well. James Dubick, one of the report’s authors and an organizer at the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness tells GoodCall, “Hunger and food insecurity are rarely isolated conditions.  They are usually signs of deeper financial hardship, which can also threaten students’ housing security, access to health care, and other basic needs.”

The impact of hunger on a student’s education

And hunger also threatens a student’s academic performance. Chauhan tells GoodCall that 20 percent of the surveyed students admitted that they’d skipped eating for an entire day due to a lack of money. “It’s hard to concentrate in class or focus on your studies when you’re hungry or worrying about where your next meal will come from.”

Dubick agrees and says financial survival takes precedence over college courses. “We found that food insecurity caused some students to miss classes, not buy textbooks or even drop classes, and, in extreme cases, hunger can cause students to drop out of school entirely.”

How colleges and universities can help with hunger

Dubick believes that colleges and universities should develop programs to assist food-insecure students. “Many schools are coming up with ways to address these problems, including campus food pantries, food recovery programs, and emergency grant programs.” While he’s encouraged by these efforts, Dubick says more schools need to form these types of programs and also discover new ways to help students.

Chauhan adds that schools could consider setting up a campus garden, or establishing a program to help qualifying students sign up for food stamps and other benefits.

One college taking the lead in this area is North Lake College. The school has a Blazer Store (that’s the name of the college’s sports teams) and Ann Hatch tells GoodCall,  “Students can use Blazer Bucks to buy food, gently used clothing and toilet articles and sometimes paperbacks, jewelry or other items as gifts.”

Blazer Bucks are earned when students volunteer – either on campus or in the community. Hatch says employees donate items to put in the store and when the stock gets low, the store requests – and always receives – donations from people on campus to help students who face food insecurity and cannot afford to purchase other necessities

Terri Williams
Terri Williams graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her education, career, and business articles have been featured on Yahoo! Education, U.S. News & World Report, The Houston Chronicle, and in the print edition of USA Today Special Edition. Terri is also a contributing author to "A Practical Guide to Digital Journalism Ethics," a book published by the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University Chicago.

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