4 Ways Colleges Can Address Food Insecurity Among College Students

Food insecurity continues to be an issue for college students. Here are four ways colleges and universities can address this problem.
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Dr. Z.W. Taylor is an assistant professor at the University of Southern Mississippi. Dr. Taylor has worked in education for 13 years as a pre-college counselor, assistant director of admissions, and admissions analyst, specifically aiming to serve lo...
Published on March 17, 2023
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Cobretti D. Williams, Ph.D. (he/him), is a scholar, writer, and editor. Cobretti's research and writing focuses on the experiences of historically excluded students and faculty and staff in higher education. His work has been published in the Journal...
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  • More than a third of college students struggle with food insecurity.
  • Colleges and universities often provide food-based resources for their students.
  • However, many of these resources may not be comfortable, appropriate, or convenient for college students
  • If you are struggling with food insecurity, reach out to an administrator to explore food-based resources available to you.

To be successful in college, students require textbooks, instruction from faculty members, lab equipment, transportation, safe places to live and learn, and educational resources to complete their coursework and earn their degrees. They also need to eat.

Over a third (39%) of college students faced food insecurity in 2020, according to the 2021 Hope Center Basic Needs survey. The report also suggests that 69% of food-insecure college students do not receive federal food benefits, even though they are potentially eligible. Here are four ways that colleges can address food insecurity among college students.

What Is Food Insecurity?

Food insecurity is a social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food. Although food insecurity can be temporary or long-term, being food insecure can make earning a college degree extremely difficult.

Research consistently suggests that students who are hungry do not persist and succeed in school at the same level as their food-secure peers, including college students.

Even though food is a basic need, many college students struggle with food insecurity. So why is this happening?

Causes of Food Insecurity

In 2019, Trellis Company surveyed college students' financial wellness to better understand what personal, social, and financial issues they struggle with. The survey found that three major factors contribute to college student food insecurity in the United States:

College is more expensive. As the costs of college have gone up, college students have been forced to make difficult financial choices. Some of these choices include skipping meals to pay for tuition and rent.

Families are making less money. In recent decades, the "wealth gap" or the "income gap" has substantially widened in the United States. Lower-income Americans have made proportionately less than their wealthier peers, adjusted for inflation. As a result, many families are poorer and cannot support their college students financially.

The wealth gap in the U.S. has disproportionately affected communities of color. K-12 and college students of color may also have experienced heightened levels of poverty and educational inequity in recent decades.

Access to higher education has improved for lower-income college students. In recent decades, students from lower-income backgrounds have accessed higher education in greater numbers. Although this is a positive development, many higher education institutions may not have been ready to serve a lower-income student population, possibly producing food insecurity among college students.

This list is not exhaustive, however. Sometimes, life happens, and college students are thrust into poverty where food insecurity is common and life-threatening, affecting their academic performance. However, many higher education institutions and other organizations have stepped up to reduce food insecurity among college students.

Four Strategies for Colleges and Universities

Research within the last ten years suggests that many higher education institutions are noticing their food-insecure students and taking action. These actions include establishing food banks on campus, partnering with community-based organizations to provide food assistance, and educating college students on how to increase their cooking self-efficacy and ability to prepare their own food.

Even despite these resources, food insecurity among college students has persisted. So what else can be done? Here are four strategies colleges and universities can take to combat food insecurity among college students.

1. Help College Students Access SNAP

The Hope Center recently published an overview of how higher education institutions can reduce food insecurity among their students. The Hope Center highlighted how the state of Massachusetts used student enrollment data to better understand which college students may be eligible for SNAP, encouraging these students to seek assistance to apply for the program.

States such as Illinois, Michigan, New York, Oregon, and Pennsylvania have determined that many community college students in career or technical degree programs are eligible for SNAP due to their enrollment in a career-focused program. Other states have begun using a student's eligibility for federal work-study programs as a proxy for SNAP eligibility, allowing colleges and universities to better identify college students who may benefit from SNAP.

2. Expand and Destigmatize Food Banks

For years, many higher education institutions have created on-campus food banks to support food-insecure college students. However, colleges can expand these programs in several ways.

First, especially for commuting students and students who are parents, colleges could allow these students to place online orders for pickup. Perhaps college students do not use food banks because they are not open when the student is available.

Or, if the student is enrolled in a community college or institutional system with many campuses, the food bank may be too far away from a student's home or main campus. Facilitating online pickup orders would allow students a discreet, more flexible way to access the food bank.

3. Partner with Local Grocery Stores to Eliminate Food Deserts

Recently, colleges have begun partnering with local grocery stores to allow college students to get groceries delivered to their places of residence.

Many higher education institutions are located in either distant and remote rural areas or in densely-populated urban areas where grocery stores are few and far between. This is what is called a food desert, an area where residents have few to no convenient options for securing affordable and healthy foods.

If higher education institutions want to reduce food deserts and college student food insecurity, partnering with local grocery stores for grocery delivery and discounted/free groceries for low-income students would be an excellent strategy.

4. Advocate for Increased Pell Grant Awards

Pell Grants are awarded to low-income college students who complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and demonstrate exceptionally high financial need.

Recently, the Pell Grant amount has increased, yet the Pell Grant has failed to maintain pace with inflation. The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators even suggested doubling the current Pell Grant amount to a total of $13,000 for an academic year, which may come close to restoring the purchasing power of the Pell Grant.

A higher Pell Grant would mean more money for low-income college students to purchase food. Institutions of higher education should lobby their local and national leadership to raise the Pell Grant amount to provide more assistance to the lowest-income college students in the United States.

As long as the wealth gap widens, families make less money than prior generations, and higher education institutions do not take appropriate action to stem these issues, food insecurity among college students will likely persist.