As the summer comes to an end and college students return to their classes, many will not just be stressing about their studies or an upcoming test: they will also be worrying about and dealing with chronic hunger pains. Colleges and universities, from large to small, public to private, and two-year to four-year, are facing a hunger epidemic. Over the last decade, numerous reports and studies have shown that 35 to 45 percent of college students are food insecure. As a result, student hunger has become a frequent topic of discussion in higher education. Many stakeholders and advocates have outlined what federal and state legislators can do to address college hunger, but less attention has been given to college and university administrators and their role in addressing the crisis.
Thus far, government action has failed to materialize; so college and university administrators must be more active in addressing student hunger on their campuses. This commentary will discuss college and university policies that perpetuate student hunger and offer solutions and reforms that administrators can implement to better support their food-insecure students. This piece does not challenge the notion that college hunger should be solved by state and federal legislation; rather, it acknowledges that current government efforts have been lackluster compared to the overwhelming need of students, and that a more robust institutional response is needed if college hunger crisis is going to be eliminated.
Current government efforts have been lackluster compared to the overwhelming need of students, and that a more robust institutional response is needed if college hunger crisis is going to be eliminated.
The Negative Effects of Being Hungry in College
The federal government has been notoriously unresponsive to the college hunger epidemic. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is one of the most effective tools the United States employs to address hunger, but due to the SNAP student eligibility rules, there are many barriers and strenuous requirements preventing college students from accessing this benefit. Some states have made strides to address college hunger with the passage of Hunger Free Campus Legislation and by proactively identifying students who qualify under the student eligibility rules. Unfortunately, these strides have only occurred in a few states, meaning that most food-insecure students—students who lack consistent access to enough food to live a healthy lifestyle—do not have adequate state or federal support.
Colleges and universities are producing the next generation of leaders, scholars, scientists, nurses, and teachers, but this work is severely hampered and undermined by college hunger. Studies have shown that food-insecure college students are more likely to be depressed, have anxiety, be sleep deprived, binge drink, have overall poorer health, self-isolate, and be less engaged with their campus communities. They frequently lack the energy to focus on their exams, classes, or assignments, resulting in them having lower GPAs compared to their food-secure peers. The difficulties that food-insecure students face add to the challenges that nontraditional, minority, LGBTQ+, and first-generation students already face when obtaining a degree, as they are disproportionately more likely to face hunger in college.
Furthermore, students experiencing food insecurity and its adverse effects during college are less likely to graduate than their food-secure peers. Of the food-insecure students who graduate, they are more likely to obtain an associate degree than a bachelor’s degree and less likely to go on and attain a graduate or professional degree. Experiencing food insecurity in college negatively affects one’s future economic mobility, employment, and income. In short, food insecurity prevents students’ current and future success.
As long as college hunger remains a prominent issue across campuses, college and university administrators have a duty to their students to explore ways to adequately address it. By implementing some of the actions detailed below, institutions and their administrators can alleviate some of the hunger that is negatively affecting their students.
Administrators Need to Prioritize Solving College Hunger
In earlier eras, colleges were attended mainly by the children of wealthy families. As the student population has diversified, there has been a lag in recognizing modern students’ economic needs, including difficulties paying for meals. However, recent research, along with student advocacy, has had some success in drawing national attention to the crisis of student hunger. Still, some college and university administrators continue to believe their campuses are immune to the crisis. This thinking needs to be put to rest. For college food insecurity to be addressed, administrators must acknowledge it as a problem and take steps to better understand its impact on the student body they serve. Institutions should either begin conducting internal studies to determine what food insecurity looks like on their campus, or begin participating in the #RealCollege Survey conducted by The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice. The #RealCollege Survey is the nation’s largest and most well-established assessment of students’ basic needs. More than 500 colleges and universities have participated, and over 500,000 students have completed the survey. When institutions decide to participate in the #RealCollege Survey and become Hope Impact Partners, they will not only identify the insecurities their students face but also gain access to coaching, training, and research seminars that outline how to address these insecurities.
Institutions should either begin conducting internal studies to determine what food insecurity looks like on their campus, or begin participating in the #RealCollege Survey.
By better understanding the landscape of hunger at their institution and what their students’ need for support, administrators will be able to develop and outline an action plan that will allow them to more effectively and efficiently address student food insecurity. It is paramount that administrators engage students themselves in the solution and decision-making process. For example, if a hunger task force is established, it should have at least one student representative from each class year. By empowering student voices in the solution process, administrators can ensure that their plans to address campus hunger are student-focused and have the buy-in of the campus community.
Campus Resource Hubs Are More Effective Than Campus Food Pantries
Campus-based food pantries have become more prevalent in response to the growing recognition of college hunger. Feeding America, as of 2019, operated a total of 316 food pantries and 124 mobile food distribution sites on college and university campuses. Furthermore, as of October 2021, over 800 food pantries were registered with the College and University Food Bank Alliance (CUFBA) before their merger with Swipe Out Hunger, a national nonprofit committed to ending college student hunger.
Most campus pantries have a designated space on campus, serve exclusively the on-campus community, and are run by staff, students, and faculty. A recently released study of the effectiveness of on-campus food pantries within the University of California System suggests that food pantry access is associated with improved student health outcomes. Unfortunately, many campus pantries are insufficiently funded, lack nutritious food, and do not have enough volunteers or workers, making hours inaccessible to some students. Each of these barriers limits the effectiveness of pantries in addressing college food insecurity.
These findings bring up two critical points that administrators need to keep in mind as they work to develop and improve their support for hungry students.
First, administrators must ensure that campus food pantries are partnered with local or regional food banks. By tying campus food pantries into the greater food bank network, pantries will be able to offer a broader range of nutritious foods like meats, fruits, and vegetables, rather than relying on limited institutional funding and infrequent community donations to stock their shelves. Current research suggests only 1 out of 4 campus pantries obtain food from local food banks.
Second, campus administrators need to understand that food pantries are not a solution to college hunger: they are a short-term band-aid. As Sara Goldrick-Rab, the scholar who founded the Hope Center, said, “it has become a thing [for colleges] to say, ‘we addressed food insecurity,’ and all they do is open a food pantry.” Administrators need to ensure that food pantries are not just a place to get food; instead, they should act as resource hubs administering information, services, and assistance to students.
These hubs, if implemented successfully, should assist students with public benefit applications, the FAFSA, taxes, and requests for institutional emergency aid. Having a staff member trained in their state’s SNAP application will ensure that students have an easier and more successful time applying for benefits. Students who qualify for SNAP will be much more likely to obtain it if their institution supports them in the application process. Resource hubs should also provide information and plan events that teach the campus community about poverty, food insecurity, homelessness, and financial literacy. In addition, the hubs should work in partnership with their on-campus mental health center, career services, and Financial Aid Department. By having a full-time professional staff, these hubs can also accommodate students’ busy schedules. By providing a wide range of services and assistance to students, these resource hubs will ensure that students obtain the support they need to succeed.
Students who qualify for SNAP will be much more likely to obtain it if their institution supports them in the application process.
Destigmatize College Hunger and On-Campus Pantry Usage
On-campus food pantries should be an easily accessible resource for food-insecure college students. However, a 2016 report indicated that only 17 percent of food-insecure students had utilized an on-campus food pantry in the past month. Multiple studies have shown that this low participation rate is caused by a social stigma associated with pantry usage andbeing hungry on campus. Interviews with both food-secure and insecure students have shown that food-insecure students are ashamed to ask for help from their peers, family, faculty, or staff. Furthermore, food-secure students are afraid to embarrass their food-insecure friends by offering help. Current campus culture has normalized the starving college student lifestyle, which has left hungry students to suffer in silence.
Administrators need to mobilize anti-stigma campaigns that show students that they are not alone in needing help. Policies should be implemented that require all students, staff, and faculty to undergo training each year that outlines what food insecurity is, its effects on students, and where students can seek help. For students, this training could occur at orientation or a campus-wide event. Conversations about college hunger should not just stop at these training sessions. Administrators must ensure that a consistent dialogue about college hunger occurs in the campus community. Dialogue in the classroom should start with the syllabus. The syllabus should have a section that outlines what food insecurity is and where students can seek help.
Institutions could go further by recommending that their faculty follow the actions of Dr. Heather Bullock, professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. On the first days of class, she projects slides showing the definition and rates of food insecurity throughout the UC system. She also provides information about where students could seek help on-campus. Professors could also begin offering classes about food insecurity, include modules focusing on food insecurity in their current courses, or encourage students to pursue projects on the issue of hunger.
Administrators should also work with on-campus food pantries to help ensure they advertise a consistent, clear message that the pantry is open and easy to access for anyone in the campus community. By promoting the pantry’s mission and policies at campus events, in campus emails, and with signage, students will feel more comfortable using the resource. By creating a healthy dialogue around college hunger, administrators can slowly chip away at the stigma preventing students from seeking help and preventing institutions from effectively and efficiently addressing the hunger crisis.
By creating a healthy dialogue around college hunger, administrators can slowly chip away at the stigma preventing students from seeking help and preventing institutions from effectively and efficiently addressing the hunger crisis.
Reform How Students Access Food on Campus
A study at Arizona State University found that between 41 to 47 percent of students on the cheapest meal plan were food-insecure. Furthermore, another study by the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness found that 43 percent of meal plan enrollees still experienced food insecurity. Current meal plan structures offered by colleges and universities fail to prevent college hunger and might actually cause it. A typical meal plan consists of a fixed number of meal swipes and cash equivalents per semester. Students are expected to use their meal plan for most of their meals, as they often do not have access to a full kitchen to cook for themselves.
Researchers have observed that when students have the opportunity to change their meal plan and reduce the cost of their degree, they often will. Students will choose a meal plan with fewer meal swipes or no plan at all, believing that they can eat for less on their own. The issue with this situation is that some of the students who take lower meal plans cannot afford or otherwise access a nutritious and healthy diet on their own, and when they inevitably run out of meal swipes, they become food-insecure.
For example, an institution in Central Pennsylvania offers a meal plan with no meal swipes and only $700 per semester of cash equivalence. It is $475 cheaper than the next lowest meal plan option. Other than freshmen, all students are automatically assigned to this meal plan, encouraging the idea that it offers enough daily meals for the semester, which it does not. When institutions offer and even encourage the use of limited meal plans like this one, they might actually be causing food insecurity on their campus. Institutions, if they offer meal plans, need to reevaluate them. At the minimum, all meal plans should provide students with at least fourteen meals a week, two meals a day.
Administrators should also look at ways to reduce the cost of their meal plans with the overall goal of providing inexpensive, healthy meals for all students. Some experts have proposed expanding the National School Lunch Program to higher education; these ideas have never taken off in the halls of Congress, but this does not mean that institutions themselves could not invest in the concept. Colleges and universities could subsidize all their students’ meal plans to reduce their cost burden on the student body and to ensure that all students have access to an adequate amount of food. At the bare minimum, institutions should subsidize meal plans for low-income and Pell-eligible students, who most likely relied on the National School Lunch Program throughout their K–12 education.
At the bare minimum, institutions should subsidize meal plans for low-income and Pell-eligible students.
Colleges and universities could also follow in the footsteps of Penn State University and Oregon State University and begin allowing students to use their SNAP benefits at on-campus retail and grocery stores. Institutions pursuing this route should work closely with their contracted food service providers and the United States Department of Agriculture to ensure that their campus markets meet the stocking requirements to accept SNAP. Some institutions will also have to persuade their food service providers to be willing to accept SNAP benefits. By accepting SNAP benefits on campus, institutions will help destigmatize SNAP usage among college students and increase the college student SNAP participation rate. Overall, accepting SNAP at on-campus stores will greatly benefit food-insecure students.
Even if institutions reform their meal plans and begin accepting SNAP benefits, their efforts to address college hunger could be undermined by outdated dining service policies and hours. A study has shown that students who worked were less likely to use their meal swipes and were more likely to be food-insecure. Many students finish work, or, if they are athletes, practice after the main dining halls close, making it more difficult or impossible for them to use their meal plans.
Administrators should ensure that campus dining services are the most accommodating to students’ busy schedules. There should always be a way for students to use their meal plans on campus, no matter the time or date. For example, institutions could establish a twenty-four-hour, automatic minimart in which students can use their meal plan or SNAP benefits to obtain food.
Finally, administrators should work with Swipe Out Hunger to implement a meal swipe donation program at their institution. This program allows students to donate their extra meal swipes to their peers who face food insecurity. Reports have shown that meal swipe donation programs are broadly supported by the student body after they are implemented on campus. In addition, food-insecure students report that using donated meal swipes allows them to skip fewer meals while also improving their mental health and academic performance.
It’s Time to Take Responsibility for Student Well-Being
College and university administrators alone cannot solve college hunger—only a combination of state, federal, and on-campus policies could do that—but it is within their power to address their own campus policies and procedures that perpetuate the problem. By exploring and implementing even a few of the recommendations discussed in this commentary, administrators can better mitigate food insecurity at their institution.