Food insecurity on campus often goes unmentioned. Many assume that college students’ needs are entirely met through parental support and financial assistance programs. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. With the cost of higher education on the rise, some college students are left to suffer silently with the issue of food insecurity.
Hunger on Campus: The Challenge of Food Insecurity for College Students, a groundbreaking study conducted by the College and University Food Bank Alliance, National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness, Student Government Resource Center, and Student Public Interest Research Groups, explores this issue. The study challenges the idea of the “typical” college student. Although most people think of college students as recent high school graduates who depend on their parents financially, this study found that 74% of college students are “nontraditional.” To be considered nontraditional, a student must meet at least one of six criteria: being financially independent, supporting dependents, attending college without a high school diploma, raising children as a single parent, attending school part-time, or working full-time. More than 50% of students meet two or more of these criteria. Based on these findings, America’s idea of a typical college student may be largely skewed.
Most college students work, with 72% of all college students—both traditional and nontraditional—holding jobs; 20% work full-time. However, for many students, it is still not enough to cover expenses. Sometimes going without food is the price students pay for pursuing a degree. This is the reality for students attending community college and those at four-year institutions. Shockingly, there is only a five percent difference between the number of very food insecure students at community colleges and at four-year universities.
This issue has become so prevalent that it recently caught the attention of the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), which released a report chronicling the challenge of food insecurity among college students. The GAO found that having a low income is the most common risk factor for food insecurity. Most low-income students also have at least one additional risk factor, such as being a first-generation student or a single parent.
So what can educators, campus partners, and community leaders do to address the growing issue of food insecurity among college students? One option is campus food banks. The GAO report found that as of September 2018, more than 650 colleges in the United States offer a food pantry on campus that provides free food to college students in need. Organizations such as the College and University Food Bank Alliance can help colleges develop and support their own campus pantry.
Another option for students in need is to turn to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly known as SNAP. Although eligibility requirements for college students are stringent, the GAO found that many students who may be eligible do not receive assistance. Of the 3.3 million students who were potentially eligible for SNAP in 2016, less than half participated. Because students may not realize that this program is available or understand how to access it, colleges should guide eligible students toward information regarding SNAP. Some colleges, including Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, CA, have even begun accepting SNAP on campus.
Nonprofit groups can also play a major role in addressing this issue. Swipe Out Hunger is a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending food insecurity among college students through advocacy, fundraising, and outreach. The organization’s premiere event is “The Swipe Drive,” which enables students with extra meal swipes to donate them to their peers. This grassroots movement makes it easy for students to work together to help those in need.
As a leading provider of innovative campus dining programs in the U.S., Sodexo strives to work with our partner campuses to address the issue of hunger, both on campus and in the surrounding communities. The Sodexo Stop Hunger Foundation and a partnership with Food Recovery Network are just a few ongoing examples. As we learn more about this growing problem, we will continue pursuing solutions to ensure that students can focus on their academic goals without worrying about having enough to eat.
Jim Jenkins is CEO of Universities East for Sodexo North America where he oversees more than 400 college and university partnerships. With $9.3 billion in annual revenues in the U.S. and Canada, Sodexo’s 133,000 employees provide more than 100 unique services that increase performance at 9,000 client sites and improve Quality of Life for 15 million consumers every day.