Much of the American lifestyle revolves around food. Most people eat two to three meals a day and spend hours purchasing, preparing and enjoying them. It’s commonplace to socialize over food and seek out the best restaurants and recipes. However, 1 in 9 Americans face food insecurity, which means that they do not have enough food to live an active and healthy lifestyle. College students are more likely to face food insecurity than any other population, with up to 14-59% of students unable to purchase enough food for themselves while attending college. The COVID-19 pandemic only deepened this issue, putting additional financial stress on students who are already struggling to pay for food.
Why College Students Are Vulnerable
Even before the global pandemic, college students were more likely to face food insecurity than the average American citizen. The first reason is simple: Tuition is expensive. This varies from campus to campus, but even with financial aid and a job, paying for housing and college tuition is a huge cost commitment. Some students will not have enough cash for groceries after covering their living expenses. In addition, an increasing number of students from low- and moderate-income families means that there are more students attending college with less financial support. Federal aid is meant to ease this financial burden, but it is often not enough to eliminate food insecurity altogether.
College students are also excluded from government programs that other citizens are allowed to access. The most notable are the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs (SNAP), which help reduce national food insecurity by providing low-income individuals and families with the resources they need to buy food. However, college students do not qualify for most of these programs, likely due to the assumption that most students have parents who will support them during times of need.
The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have put additional pressure on college students who struggle financially. Many businesses laid off service employees and stopped employing new hires, which prevented students from working to support themselves. Many resources, such as community kitchens and food pantries, were closed, removing resources that students would normally be able to access. Not only that, but many students across America were required to leave their campus housing in the spring of 2020, leaving many without a convenient place to go; they had to shoulder the burden of traveling or finding a new place to live. That, combined with few job opportunities, increased the rate of food insecurity among college students.
The damage from the pandemic will linger. Even though campus resources are reopening, food insecurity will remain a problem. It was an issue before the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic and unless universities are adequately able to help students get the food they need, it will not disappear.
Why Food Insecurity Is Damaging
Hunger, of course, is an uncomfortable sensation, but it is not the only symptom of food insecurity. Students in this situation deal with additional stressors that accompany the many different causes of food insecurity. Students who cannot buy food for themselves are usually worried about paying for their housing and tuition, maintaining a social life and performing well academically. An excessive amount of stress can lead to physical illness and emotional distress, both of which can impact a student’s ability to connect with others and keep up with their studies.
It is important to note that a lack of food is not the only thing that food insecurity entails — the quality of the food available is equally as important. Students who are financially distressed will often purchase cheap food with low nutritional value, which can affect a student’s physical and emotional well-being. Poor nutrition is linked to fatigue, irritability and many other symptoms that could prevent students from living fully and enjoying the college experience. If this pattern continues for long enough, students could find themselves facing long-term health complications, such as heart disease or an increased chance of developing cancer.
Resources To Combat Food Insecurity
Although most SNAP programs are still unavailable to students, other community resources are reopening. As the cases of COVID-19 decrease and the vaccine is distributed to more people, more universities are opening the doors to their food banks. These food banks are where many universities store food to distribute to students who need assistance. Students can place orders and pick up food, often with no questions asked. Most of these food banks have a limited inventory and only allow students to access them once a week, but they are free and can be an invaluable resource to a student struggling to pay for food. There are over 700 college food banks that operate across the United States and the demand for them is growing.
Community kitchens are another option for students who struggle to afford meals. Community kitchens, which are often held at churches, schools and other central locations, allow members of the community to regularly come together to share the financial cost and preparation of meals. This will vary from location to location but participating in community kitchens could help students get enough food by sharing the cost with other members of the community.
The availability of other food programs varies by location. Some states and cities provide additional aid to students by allowing them to access local food banks or soup kitchens. Some grocery stores offer discounts for students who attend nearby universities or offer special deals to students who need them. It is important to search online or communicate with a university’s staff to determine what is available for college students in each community.
Some students who experience food insecurity avoid seeking help in the face even when there are available resources. This can stem from a desire to be independent or to avoid embarrassment. Although these are strong motivators, it takes courage to reach out for help. Taking the time to research a local university’s plan to end unnecessary hunger can benefit to students and communities in the fight to reduce food insecurity on college campuses.