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Too Many College Students Can’t Afford Food — Here’s What to Do

Two unidentifiable students having a study session at a cafe table.
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College can be a difficult and stressful time in any person’s life, full of pivotal decisions and weighty unknowns.

But in the midst of all those unknowns, there’s one unknown a student should never have to worry about: whether or not they’re going to eat that night.

According to a recent report published by Temple University and the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, researchers found a concerning number of college students across the U.S. are food insecure, meaning they have a “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods, or the ability to acquire such foods in a socially acceptable manner.”

This doesn’t just mean students are skipping a meal here and there because they’re too busy studying in the library. Nine percent of community college students and 6% of university students surveyed said they had gone at least one full day without eating anything at all in the last month.

The Grim (and Growing) Food Insecurity Problem

The report is the largest and most comprehensive of its kind, including responses from more than 43,000 students at private and public two- and four-year colleges and universities in more than 20 states and Washington, D.C.

Among its most notable findings? In the 30 days preceding the survey, 36% of students said they were food insecure.

For community college students, that number jumps to 42%.

The survey also showed that basic needs insecurity disproportionately affected marginalized students. At two-year schools, 54% of black students surveyed said they had recently felt food insecure, while a slightly larger 55% of Native American students said the same thing.

At four-year schools, 10% more students who identified as homosexual reported food insecurity than those who identified as heterosexual. Additionally, 3 out of every 5 students who grew up in the foster care system reported food insecurity.

According to the report, several researchers agree that food insecurity is correlated with lower grades in college, while other researchers have found that basic needs insecurities can lead to poorer self-reports on physical health, along with higher reports of symptoms of depression and perceived stress.

While awareness of this problem is growing across the U.S., the lead author of the report and a professor of higher education policy at Temple University, Sara Goldrick-Rab, recently told The Washington Post that this is a systemic problem, one that is deeply rooted — and seems to be growing worse.

While some researchers do think those ever-rising college costs are partially to blame, they also note that inadequate financial aid and higher enrollment numbers among low-income students contribute to the rising numbers of food-insecure college students.

Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, researchers blame the fact that many colleges are unwilling to admit they even have a food insecurity problem.

“Prices have gone up over time. But the rising price is just a piece,” Goldrick-Rab explained.

What To Do If You’re a Student Facing Food Insecurity

The report notes that use of public assistance (such as a state SNAP program or local food pantry), is pretty uncommon among college students — mainly because of the social stigma surrounding them.

But listen, if you’re a student wondering where your next meal is coming from, know this: You aren’t the only one, and if you need to and can take advantage of a food assistance program, there’s no shame in that game.

Not all college students will qualify for a SNAP program, but it never hurts to check. You can find more info about qualifying for SNAP benefits as a student here.  

You can search nearby food banks on the Feeding America website. If you need help with food today, Feeding America states that “food is available to anyone who needs it without obligation, regardless of circumstance,” and it will be both free and confidential.

Many schools have food pantries on campus. A Google search of “your school’s name + food pantry” should help you get started.

If you need to make your grocery budget stretch, we’ve got some tips to help you do that as well. Here’s how one person made $30 last for two weeks, and a list of dollar store groceries that actually taste good.

Also, keep your eyes peeled for free food being given away at meetings and events presented by on-campus organizations. Many on-campus religious organizations also offer a weekly free dinner.

If you’re a student who does not deal with food insecurity, there are ways you can help as well.

While not all schools participate in the program, Swipe Out Hunger is an organization that allows you to donate your unused meal plan “dollars” to other students or to campus food banks at the end of the semester or year.

Also, if you have a shareable meal plan (usually those with a limited number of swipes per day) and you’re not using your entire allotment, find out if you’re allowed to swipe guests in. You may find that you’re allowed to share your extra meal plan points with someone who could use them.

Grace Schweizer is a junior writer at The Penny Hoarder.

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