Food Insecurity on College Campuses

Up to half of the nation’s college students go without meals, but there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution

November 15, 2018
Food Insecurity in College

Up to half of the nation’s college students might struggle with food insecurity, meaning that they often don’t have access to food. The problem transcends geography, as well as the divides between community colleges and four-year colleges, private and public, elite and non-elite. Researchers still can't measure the full consequences of such rampant food insecurity, but they have linked it to lower graduation rates.

Solutions to the problem will be as varied as the institutions that grapple with it, according to a new white paper by Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Anthony Jack and Cheryl Sternman Rule, the national marketing manager at Bon Appetit Management Company, a food service provider for corporate, university, and nonprofit clients. Rule received her master’s degree from the Harvard Ed School.

Jack focuses his research on low-income undergraduates and has coined two terms to differentiate among them: the “doubly disadvantaged,” students who enter college from typically under-resourced public high schools; and the “privileged poor,” who attended private or preparatory high schools.

Just as it’s useful to differentiate among the challenges that low-income college students face, it’s helpful to recognize distinct types of food insecurity on campuses, Jack says.

“What you find at community colleges and state colleges and other places is chronic food insecurity, where not knowing where their next meal is coming is more of an everyday reality,” he explains. But there’s another type of food insecurity prevalent on campuses, which he refers to as episodic. Even on well-resourced campuses with dining halls, lower-income students often struggle to feed themselves over vacations, notably shorter vacations like Thanksgiving, or over spring break, when dorms and dining halls often close.

“By documenting not just the rates but the difference in nature, we can get a better understanding of the kind of interventions and solutions different colleges can take,” he says.

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Even on well-resourced campuses with dining halls, lower-income students often struggle to feed themselves over vacations, notably shorter vacations like Thanksgiving, or over spring break, when dorms and dining halls often close.

Jack led a successful push in 2015 to keep dining halls at Harvard open over spring break. He knew all too well what lower-income students, even at the nation’s wealthiest institutions, faced: he confronted closed dining halls over breaks when he could not afford to go home as an undergraduate at Amherst College.

“Sometimes schools need to shut down,” he admits. “But if you are making it a point to diversify your campus or acknowledge who you have on your campus, specifically lower-income students, you need to be aware of the problems they face, and food insecurity is one of those problems.”

Lack of awareness about the challenges lower-income students face once they’re on campus “truly hurts students’ ability to function as full members of the community,” he says. “We’re talking about the basic ability to function.”

For residential colleges, keeping dining halls open during breaks, subsidizing unlimited meal plans, and facilitating “swipe sharing” among students — where wealthier students can donate some of their meal swipes to their peers — can go a long way.

The solutions at community colleges, where students tend to be older and more likely to be supporting other family members, are different. Right now, all sorts of schools — from community colleges like Bunker Hill Community College to ivies like Columbia University — operate food pantries. Other solutions could come on the policy level. Federal guidelines say that most college students are not eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), but some could be, even despite a requirement that they work at least 20 hours a week — a delicate and often nearly impossible balance. If work requirements or other barriers to eligibility were lowered, and student awareness raised, more students could be helped. 

At one point in the not-so-distant past, students could use Pell grants — federal grants of up to $6,095 a year — for tuition, and have money left over for other education-related expenses, like books or the food they needed to sustain themselves. But just as the number of lower-income students enrolled in college has soared, so has college tuition. Today, the average price of in-state tuition and fees for a state school is about $10,230 — almost double the amount of the maximum Pell grant. Students are in debt before they can even think about living expenses.

“These aren’t students who are just trying to be lazy,” Jack said. “They are trying to live up to an American dream to get an education, so they can get a job, so they can support themselves and their families.”

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Fighting Hunger on Campus

While food insecurity on college campuses is the result of a web of systemic and institutional problems, solutions on both the federal policy level and campus level can help. More ideas can be found in the full report.

Policy solutions to food insecurity

  • Increasing the maximum dollar amount of Pell grants to cover the true cost of attending college, including food.
  • Expand the federal programs for school lunches to students at the collegiate level.
  • Revisit guidelines for students seeking federal food aid, and lower work requirements.

Campus solutions

  • Keep dining halls open and accessible for food-insecure students during breaks.
  • Make it easy for students to share their meal points.
  • Increase grants and scholarships to cover unlimited meal plans.
  • Help students apply for SNAP.
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College and Career Diversity and Inclusion Social-Emotional Wellbeing