How to Handle Food Insecurity as a College Student

Over a quarter of college students have experienced food insecurity. Learn about resources that can help you access food on and off campus.

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by Kristen Grau

Published on May 12, 2022

Reviewed by Laila Abdalla, Ph.D.

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How to Handle Food Insecurity as a College Student
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More than a quarter (29%) of students at four-year colleges and more than a third (39%) at two-year colleges have experienced food insecurity, according to the Hope Center.

Food insecurity is generally the state of not having a stable food source for a healthy life. As a college student, there are resources available to help you combat food insecurity.

Learn where you can find food on and off campus if you can't afford it.

What Is Food Insecurity?

Food insecurity is "a lack of consistent access to enough food for every person in a household to live an active, healthy life," according to Feeding America, a national nonprofit fighting hunger.

College students have long struggled with food insecurity. The causes of food insecurity are complex and can be interrelated. They often cannot be easily ascribed to a single issue.

According to Feeding America, some of the most common causes for food insecurity include:

  • Low income
  • Lack of stable and affordable housing
  • Chronic health conditions and lack of access to medical support
  • Systemic racism

There are two types of food insecurity, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Low food security is when a person has little to no decrease in food intake but does experience less healthy variety. Very low food security includes prolonged and disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.

Food insecurity can take a heavy toll on college students.

Students dealing with food insecurity have difficulty studying and concentrating due to hunger. Many may also have no time to study because they have to search for food. And due to their situation, some may feel shame when trying to fit in with peers.

These conditions can hinder these students' ability to succeed as they pursue a college degree.

The pandemic has also worsened food insecurity among students. When campuses shut down, many students who relied on resources, such as campus food pantries, had to find other options with little notice.

5 Ways to Get Food in College When You Can't Afford It

If you are experiencing food security, there is likely help on campus and in your community. Here are five places to look for near you.

1. Go to Your Campus Food Pantry

Food pantries are places that distribute food to families and people in need. Colleges host food pantries for students in need. Most public state universities have food pantries. Outside organizations usually donate or provide the food, so you don't need to pay for it.

Look online to see if your college campus has a campus food pantry. Your college's website will likely have information about what you need to bring, if anything, to get food.

2. Find Off-Campus Food Pantries

Food pantries aren't just on college campuses — there are usually ones for the wider community.

They work the same way as college food pantries. Outside organizations usually support them so that you can access food free of cost.

You can find ones near you by visiting FoodPantries.org. You can search for food pantries by state and county.

3. Apply for SNAP Benefits

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits provide funding for low-income Americans to buy food. You can use SNAP benefits to buy necessities like fruits, vegetables, meats, bread, and dairy. You can't use them for beer, wine, cigarettes, or tobacco.

You may be eligible for SNAP benefits as a college student. With new legislation being introduced, that eligibility may expand in the future. You can apply for SNAP benefits by visiting SNAP's State Directory of Resources, which is a map. Click on your state, and apply on your state's website.

Eligibility rules are generally the same across the country and depend on your income, assets, and several other factors. You won't qualify if you don't meet SNAP's eligibility requirements and, in some cases, if you're attending college at least half-time.

4. Use Swipe Banks

Swipe Out Hunger is a national nonprofit focused on ending food insecurity among college students.

The organization coined the term "swipe banks," which are meal donations. Struggling students can pick up a "swipe," which gives them access to food in their dining halls.

Find out if your school has one — and whether or not you qualify.

5. Find Local Food Kitchens

Food kitchens, sometimes referred to as soup kitchens, provide food for free or at minimal prices to people in need.

Different types of organizations, including shelters and churches, host these kitchens. Many food kitchens provide basic food options like soup and bread — others have more variety.

Search online for "food kitchens" or "soup kitchens" in your area to find these organizations and their locations.

5 Ways to Help Students Experiencing Food Insecurity

Here are some ways to assist students with food insecurity at your school or in your community.

1. Volunteer at Your Food Pantry

Food pantries are often looking for volunteers.

Your role might include setting/cleaning up, distribution, outreach, and more.

As a college student, you'll likely have flexibility — like the ability to volunteer only on the weekends. Plus, volunteering could be useful to put on a resume, depending on your role.

2. Lobby Student Government

Student government influences how thousands of dollars are spent at your university. You can advocate for more funding for your school's food bank — or for starting a food bank if your school doesn't have one.

You can do this by attending a student government meeting since they're open to the public and usually allow comments from students. You can also try meeting with your student representatives one on one to discuss how much they can allocate toward food for students.

3. Start a Fundraiser

Using GoFundMe or other crowdsourcing platforms, you can easily start a fundraiser to support people experiencing food insecurity at your school.

You can also work with your college's student government or clubs to promote your fundraiser and ensure it's successful.

The money you raise can go to campus food pantries, community food pantries, or students with food insecurity directly.

4. Host Food Drives

Food drives collect food and donate the items to students or other organizations. That food is usually donated to food banks for use at food pantries.

While those food drives could be helpful, virtual food drives might be more beneficial for food banks. A virtual food drive is a fundraiser that may not involve any physical food at all.

According to Feeding America, virtual food drives can result in more meals and less food waste.

5. Get the Word Out

Spreading awareness about food insecurity on college campuses can spur others to take action.

You can do this by writing an op-ed in your student newspaper or posting information on social media. You can also create flyers or pamphlets to leave in classrooms with information and resources for students to learn more.

Resources for College Students Facing Food Insecurity

Click on your state or search by your ZIP code to find the nearest food banks and distribution events near you. Find out how to apply for SNAP benefits in your state and see if you qualify. Find the nearest food pantries in your state and counties with this free directory. If you want to take action and collect meal donations at your campus, you can partner with the nonprofit Swipe Out Hunger to do it. Is your campus lacking a food pantry? This guide will teach you how to start and run one on your campus.
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