dining hall
Dining hall closures are no joke for food insecure college students. (Illustration by Alexa Finkelstein, Pratt Institute)

Ramen noodles and boxes of macaroni and cheese may be go-to foods for every college student on a budget, but no one can live on those alone. For many college students out there, getting enough nutritious food to thrive is a daily struggle. Food insecurity is a serious problem on college campuses, and some students struggle to buy food when their finances are already stretched thin due to expensive textbooks, school supplies, tuition, rent, or even childcare for the increasing number of students with children. Food insecurity exists even in college campuses with dining halls and available meal plans, which is exacerbated when these dining halls close.

Food insecurity is a global problem, affecting around 113 million people worldwide. This means that, around the world, 113 million people have limited access to food and are unsure of where or how they can get enough food to support their families. These statistics may seem too large or too distant to comprehend, but food insecurity affects people close to home as well — it affects approximately 40 million people across the United States.

A 2017 study of more than 30,000 two- and four-year college students through Temple University’s Hope Center for College, Community and Justice found that about 50% of students experienced food insecurity, and that 20% of students at two-year colleges had high levels of food insecurity.

While there is some dispute among researchers as to the exact number, no one is disputing that food insecurity is a real problem that college students have to face. On top of studying for school and working, some students also have to worry about when and where they can get enough food and nutrients. Furthermore, the lack of food makes both studying and working more difficult, as hunger can negatively affect a person’s ability to concentrate and can increase stress.

Food insecurity on college campuses is made worse by the strict federal government requirements for food stamps. Since the federal government restricted food stamps to prevent college students with wealthy families but low personal income from qualifying, many students who really are struggling with food insecurity have become ineligible.

The federal government requires students to either be caring for a small child, participating in a work-study program or working 20 hours a week on top of schoolwork to qualify, which leaves many financially struggling students unable to get food stamps. Additionally, confusion and misinformation are prevalent on college campuses regarding these restrictions. With the lack of governmental support, students continue to go hungry and remain uncertain of how they will eat in the future.

Additionally, dining hall closures on college campuses exacerbate the prevalence of food insecurity for students, especially over breaks. Students who can’t travel home or have nowhere to go are often left without dorms or dining halls, as many of these facilities close for the break. As colleges increase economic diversity and admit more students from low-income families, the number of students who have to stay on campus over breaks increases, and these students rely on dining halls for food.

When dining halls close, low-income students can go hungry. Anthony Abraham Jack, a Harvard professor, found that only one in five colleges keep their dining halls open over breaks, leaving many students hungry and food insecure. As one student said in a conversation with Jack, “There’s always famine during spring break.” Another student called spring break “the real ‘Hunger Games.’”

So what can colleges do? With government assistance and food stamps hard to come by, some colleges are attempting to decrease food insecurity on their campuses by expanding dining hall hours to include breaks, which is a good first step. Johns Hopkins University announced that they would provide dining hall access over breaks in the spring semester of 2019, and Brown University recently changed their policy so that dining halls would be open in spring break to those with a meal plan.

Furthermore, they now require all sophomores to continue to enroll in a meal plan after freshmen year, which will be paid for by the university’s scholarship fund to students with high financial aid. Making meal plans more affordable to those who need it and making dining halls more accessible during breaks will help lessen the burdens of low-income, food insecure students.

Dining halls, even when they are open, are useless to food insecure students if they don’t have access. Many colleges have expensive meal plans and limited access to dining halls, which contributes to food insecurity.

To fight this, a large non-profit organization called “Swipe Out Hunger,” which was founded at the UCLA in 2010, has partnered with over 80 colleges nationwide to lessen food insecurity among their students. Students in the partnered colleges can donate their meal swipes to the organization, which will distribute them to food insecure students, giving them the access to dining halls and the nutritious food that they need. They also try to raise awareness about student food insecurity, which is sorely needed in order to fight it.

Food pantries on college campuses are a third way to help decrease food insecurity among college students. The College & University Food Bank Alliance was founded in 2012 by the Michigan State Student Food Bank and the Oregon State University Food Pantry to alleviate food insecurity and hunger in college students with over 700 food pantries in colleges nationwide. While many of these food pantries face challenges like lack of funds, food and volunteers, college food pantries are a promising way to lessen food insecurity for students.

Food insecurity on college campuses, whether chronic or focused around breaks, is a pressing problem for many students. Ramen noodles and boxes of macaroni and cheese aren’t enough to sustain people long-term, and buying more nutritious food is often too expensive for food insecure students.

That’s why extended dining hall hours, increased access to dining halls with meal swipe swaps and food pantries can get students more nutritious food, which helps them focus and do well in school. Colleges need to understand that increasing economic diversity doesn’t just mean accepting low-income students — it also means supporting them and helping alleviate food insecurity.

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