New report points out nearly half of college students report food insecurity
— Lunden Jamison has a gluten intolerance so he restricts what he eats. Just as often, though, his diet restrictions are driven by a tight budget.
“I come over here because it’s a dollar instead of $6 at Chipotle,” the 18-year-old freshman says as he eats a hamburger without a bun at a McDonald’s restaurant near the University of Akron.
“I’m a pre-med student so the textbooks are really expensive,” he adds. “Sometimes you have to pick and choose what’s important.”
A nationwide report this month found that access to sufficient quantities of affordable, nutritious food is out of reach for a growing number of students as they struggle to balance the cost of tuition, books, housing and other expenses.
“Hunger on Campus” found that 48 percent of respondents reported food insecurity in the previous 30 days. Twenty-two percent had very low levels of food security that qualified them as hungry.
The findings stem from a survey of almost 3,800 students at 34 community and four-year colleges across 12 states. The University of Akron was not among the campuses polled. But students here – and local anti-hunger workers – say the problem is all too real.
“You think about college students — the price of tuition is going up. Do they pay for their books or do they go to the grocery store?” says Kat Pestian, spokeswoman for the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank. “We all joke about college kids eating ramen noodles. But it’s not a joke.”
Luke Rocco, 21, majoring in food and environmental nutrition, says campus hunger “is under the surface. Not many people see it, but it’s definitely there.” The stigma of needing food, and possibly food assistance, makes students reluctant to admit they are hungry or not getting a nutritious diet, he says.
Rocco is doing a senior honors project on hunger, with plans to develop a “solidarity fridge,” a sort of pop-up food pantry, to take food to the location it’s needed most.
At Kent State University, the campus food pantry has moved into a bigger space at Williamson House and is now offering students two bags of groceries a month, up from two bags a semester.
“People that are food insecure — we have this perception it’s the person on the corner holding up a sign,” says pantry coordinator Cassandra Pegg-Kirby, who is assistant director of the school’s Women’s Center. “On the campus it looks very different.”
Pegg-Kirby says she’s had faculty approach her to ask how they could help after hearing students talk about taking food out of a dumpster.
“The biggest thing is not just providing the food, not just putting a Band-aid on this,” she says. “We want to get them connected, because they tend to be isolated. They’re not telling people that that’s what they’re going through.”
Reviving a campus food pantry
The University of Akron at one point had a food pantry but it’s since been dissolved. Rocco says there’s a movement underway to revive it. Meanwhile, hungry students are occasional visitors to nearby food pantries and hot meal programs.
“It’s not a want. It’s a need. You have to eat,” says Kathy Wilkins, who’s been serving home-cooked meals at the Akron Bible Church Hope Café on Brown Street for about 10 years. Once in a while she sees a young visitor with a backpack she thinks might be a college student.
The “Hunger on Campus” found that the rising cost of education and the increasing number of nontraditional students mean that more students are living at or below the poverty level.
Roughly 74 percent of college students are nontraditional, meaning they attend college part-time, are employed full-time, are financially independent, must provide for dependents, are a single parent or don’t have a high school diploma – or have a combination of those characteristics.
The study dashed some stereotypes. It found that 56 percent of food insecure students were currently working. Among those employed, 38 percent worked 20 hours or more a week.
Many food insecure students also received financial aid. And many were on meal plans, but the plans didn’t stretch for the whole month. As for those living off campus without a meal plan, budgeting for food could be even more difficult.
Food insecurity was reported by 57 percent of African-American students, compared to 40 percent of non-Hispanic white students. Additionally, food insecurity dogged 56 percent of first-generation students – the first in their family to go to school – compared to 45 percent of students who had at least one parent who attended college.
The researchers said a recent survey of food insecure students at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, highlighted some of the academic fallout of not always knowing where your next meal will come from.
Eighty percent of respondents reported that getting enough to eat affected their class performance. More than 55 percent said it compromised their ability to attend classes, and 4 percent said that they had to drop out of college for one or more semesters due to food or housing insecurity.
The “Hunger on Campus” researchers conclude with several recommendations. Among them: A call for more on-campus pantries, systems for students with pre-paid meal plan dollars to donate unused meal points to anti-hunger charities, campus community gardens and farmers’ markets, and a push to eliminate food thrown away. A shocking 40 percent of food nationwide is thought to end up in landfills.
“There’s so many people that need food and there’s so much food waste,” says Rocco, the food and nutrition major at the University of Akron. “I feel like the two issues can potentially solve each other.”