I was once a college student. Particularly after I moved off campus, I struggled with finances. My diet wasn’t varied or particularly healthy – lots of pizza and ramen noodles –  but I wasn’t hungry.

I am now the parent of a college student. She’s living in a house this year with friends, learning how to budget time and money and taking responsibility for preparing all her meals. Much of our family’s life centers around food, so we have daily exchanges about what’s on the menu. We share recipes and “how-to” advice via email, text and phone.

My daughter is fortunate that her resources enable her to enjoy a healthy and varied diet. She has never had to wonder where her next meal is going to come from.

And in this way, her experiences are significantly different from many of her peers across the nation. That’s per two recent studies about food insecurity among college students.

UC’s Global Food Initiative Funds Study

One of the major studies was conducted by the University of California, as part of its Global Food Initiative. The survey was led by UC ANR’s Nutrition Policy Institute. It surveyed nearly 9,000 students (14% response rate). Learn more about the survey methodology here.

Recent figures indicate that an increasing number of UC undergraduates come from low-income families (about 42% of undergraduates student in 2012-14). With the rising cost of college attendance, a challenging financial climate and less assistance, the situation is serious.

Survey results show that four in 10 UC students are food insecure, higher than the hunger prevalence reported for the overall U.S. population, but on par with the findings of smaller studies at other colleges across the nation. Hispanic and Black students experience a higher prevalence of food insecurity compared to other groups.

There are other significant findings, some of which have important implications for future health:

  • Food insecurity is a new experience to most students.
  • Food-insecure students struggle academically.
  • Food-insecure students prioritize the cost of food over health.
  • Food-insecure students are more likely to seek free food and to buy fast food.

What UC is Doing about Student Food Insecurity

UC is addressing food insecurity among its students. In 2015, it sponsored the California Higher Education Food Summit, which brought students from across the state together to share and develop strategies to tackle food insecurity.

UC President Janet Napolitano also provided each campus with $75,000 to create “Food Security Working Groups.” These groups have already created food insecurity plans.

As part of its Global Food Initiative, UC also has a systemwide Food Access & Security Subcommittee, which has worked with student representatives and staff to develop an action plan that meets the specific needs of individual campuses, but also maximizes coordination across the UC system.

Some of the key actions taken include:

  • Expanding food pantry storage/access.
  • Increasing collaboration with state and county offices to register students for CalFresh.
  • Improving communications about the available resources, including being clear in financial aid communications about housing and food costs.

There is no one-size-fits-all plan, but the campuses share some strategies. These include short-term financial aid, vouchers for campus dining, gift cards to food retailers, food pantries and improving referral to federal nutrition assistance programs. An innovative program called SWIPES (started at UCLA and UCSB) enables people to donate extra “points” on meal plans to those who need them; these program are being expanded.

UC President Janet Napolitano has also committed $3.3 million to tackle food insecurity on UC campuses.

“Food security is a critical issue not only on college campuses, but throughout our country and the world,” Napolitano said. “We undertook this survey, and are acting on its findings, because the University is serious about addressing real, long-term solutions to improve the well-being of our students.”

Editor’s Note: UC’s Nutrition Policy Institute – which conducted the study – was established in 2013, with the mission of improving nutrition and reducing obesity, hunger and chronic disease risk in children and their families in diverse settings. It operates under the auspices of UC’s Agriculture and Natural Resources division. Learn more about NPI here.

New National Report Confirms Troubling News about Hunger

Recently a new report – Hunger on Campus – was released. The findings are based on a nationwide survey of college students. The sample included nearly 3,800 students in 12 states, including community colleges and 26 four-year colleges and universities.

Among the findings?

  • 48% of students report food insecurity, including 22% who reported very low levels of food security.
  • Hunger is a problem at both two-year and four-year institutions.
  • Food insecurity is more prevalent among students of color.
  • More than half of first-generation students surveyed (56%) are food insecure. This is compared to 45% of students who had at least one parent who attended college.

Other disturbing findings are that 56% of those students who were classified as food insecure reported having a job. Of those, 38% were working 20 hours (or more) per week. Being enrolled in a campus meal plan did not eliminate the threat of food insecurity. And neither did financial aid.

Kevin Kruger, President of NASPA – Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, said this:

“As our nation struggles with the widening attainment gap for low-income, first-generation students and students of color, it is critical to understand the role poverty, food insecurity and housing insecurity play in persistence and degree completion for these students. While the prevalence of campus food banks and food pantries is increasing nationwide, this groundbreaking research should inspire American institutions to do more to support the thousands of college students who experience food insecurity.”

Editor’s Note: Oregon is making it easier for students to enroll in SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). Oregon State University and Humboldt State University have on-campus stores that now accept food stamps. At Cal State Fresno, a smartphone app – Catered Cupboard – notifies students when there is left-over food at campus events. There is a national SWIPES organization. To dive deeper into the issue, you may want to check out Sara Goldrick-Rab research. Formerly with the University of Wisconsin and now with Temple University, she is one of the nation’s leading researchers on college hunger. Read her HOPE’s Lab report – “Hungry to Learn: Addressing Food & Housing Insecurity Among Undergraduates.” 

Related Reading:

The Girl Who Wants to End Hunger

Q&A Bill Shore: Share Our Strength

A Conversation with Dr. Jan Poppendieck