COVID-19 Worsens Food Insecurity Among College Students
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- College students who worry about food often see their grades take a hit.
- Food insecurity also tends to take a toll on students' physical and mental health.
- COVID-19 has intensified food insecurity and threatens to widen the education gap.
- Addressing food insecurity in college could require more financial aid and new legislation.
Living off of ramen has long been considered part of the college experience, but food insecurity, like housing insecurity, is one of the biggest barriers to graduating. As university costs and national college debt reach record levels, the risk of food insecurity among college students continues to grow.
Many college students struggle to cover basic needs. Those who lack family support are especially likely to struggle to afford food, and report eating less, eating less healthy, and going hungry.
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It's hard to concentrate when you're hungry. Students who experience food insecurity are less likely to earn A's and more likely to earn B's, C's, or lower. In addition to lower academic achievement, food insecurity is associated with stopping and starting school and taking longer to graduate.
“Most food-insecure students were faced with issues of stigma and shame daily, which prevented them from seeking assistance from parents and federal social services.”
Food-insecure students also have poorer physical and mental health. Studies show that food insecurity is associated with behavioral and attention problems and depression among students of all ages.
Data on food insecurity among college students is limited but suggests the issue is significantly more pervasive than the national average. While around 13% of U.S. households were food insecure pre-pandemic, campus studies suggest that as much as 59% of students experience food insecurity at some point in their college careers.
Food insecurity hurts low-income students' chances from elementary school through college, stymieing professional goals as a result. Now, unemployment and income loss due to ongoing COVID-19 measures threaten to intensify that trend.
How the Pandemic Exacerbates College Hunger
College students at two- and four-year schools already faced food insecurity at above-average rates. Now, pandemic-related campus shutdowns have caused the rate of hunger to nearly double in some states, pointing to even more pronounced rates of college hunger.
Americans aged 18-24 are among the most likely to be unemployed during the pandemic. With campuses closed, many college students are cut off from food pantries, food service vendors, and work opportunities. A number also struggle to access federal food assistance due to long-standing student restrictions.
Beginning in January, certain student restrictions to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) eligibility, such as being enrolled more than half time, were temporarily lifted. As more campuses look to reopen, more food resources should become available to vulnerable students.
But the damage won't be easy to reverse. Black adults were three times as likely as white adults to report food insecurity, being laid off, or being unemployed during the pandemic. Not only are vulnerable communities hit hardest by the pandemic and its economic backlash, but research also indicates that vulnerable communities take significantly longer to recover from disasters.
Food Insecurity Widens the Education Gap
Food insecurity among college students relates to financial need, which intersects with minority status. As such, Black and brown students are significantly more likely to experience food insecurity than white students.
A study conducted at a large public university found that students who belonged to an underrepresented minority, who were receiving multiple forms of financial aid, or who were experiencing housing problems were more likely to be food insecure or at risk of food insecurity.
“Basic needs insecurity varies over time, such that a student might experience housing insecurity during one semester and food insecurity the next.”
Community college students, financially independent students, Pell Grant recipients, and student parents are all more likely than their peers to experience basic needs insecurity.
The same student groups that struggle to cover the essentials also struggle to make it to graduation, with low-income, Black, and Hispanic students dropping out at steeper rates. Without a degree, these students become more likely to experience food insecurity in the future.
Additionally, food-insecure students report more frequent depression symptoms, such as feeling down, tired, or disinterested, and say those symptoms affect their studies.
Addressing Food Insecurity Among College Students
College graduates boast higher employment rates and salaries than nongraduates, setting them up for greater health and wealth in the long term. The role food security plays in propelling students through college is receiving new legislative attention.
Meanwhile, researchers argue that more studies are needed to understand college food insecurity. Practical interventions, such as providing food, helping students apply for SNAP, and offering nutrition education, are also necessary for mitigating hunger.
“Many students who experience basic needs insecurity do not access public assistance. About 20% of food-insecure students receive SNAP.”
College students fail to access all available federal and campus help, but what is available could ultimately prove insufficient. The positive association between food insecurity and financial aid suggests that typical aid packages fail to meet students' basic needs.
Campus food pantries possess room for growth as well. Beyond providing food, pantries offer a point of connection for struggling students — a chance to check in on the numerous challenges that accompany food insecurity, from health and housing issues to barriers to academic success.
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