College x
Illustration of empty fridge in an article about food insecurity

Many students face this problem, and the ‘broke college student’ trope that comes with it may be more harmful than funny.

Food insecurity. The term itself conveys the depth of the issue faced by those who suffer from it. Being food insecure means not being able to eat good, nutritious food — or food at all — on a regular basis, due to lack of resources. Not being able to get one of the key factors to a living being’s survival seems daunting to most. But it is a reality for many.

And, perhaps, not shockingly, college students are one group of people that just happen to deal with food insecurity. “Of course they would be,” one would think, “It’s just the way it is.” But why is food insecurity among college students played down so much? Food is needed for survival. All the facts are there. Why ignore it?

Studies have shown that up to half of college students are food insecure. Fifty percent — that’s a lot of people. The trope of the ramen-eating student had to come from somewhere. But not being able to eat at least three good meals a day should not be a part of the college experience. Food insecurity doesn’t stem from not knowing where to get groceries or not having time to get them.

A student that is busy, a student that needs to suddenly be independent in the world, a student that is just too tired to remember the basic necessities of life — after all, it couldn’t be that they just don’t have the resources to get food. Some say that they just haven’t figured out how to live life in this new space that is college.

The truth, as always, is something more sinister.

Money — another basic need for survival created by us humans. If you don’t have money, you can’t get food. And a lot of college students don’t have money. They might come from poor backgrounds, their funds might be used up by tuition and other academic fees, they might have to pay rent. They might have family members to look after. The list goes on.

College students have to give their  money to fulfill so many requirements just to get an education that food just cannot be on the spending list. It doesn’t help that the financial investment needed for a college education in the United States is increasing without an end in sight. It also doesn’t help that an increasing number of college students are coming from financially unstable homes.

But the reasons don’t stop there. This simple ability to get food can affect almost every aspect of a person’s life. It is no secret nowadays that one’s mental health is connected to food — what you eat really can affect how you feel. And not eating at all just throws that system out the window. Food insecurity can lead to detrimental effects on a person’s mental health. For college students facing food insecurity, this effect on their mental health is just another factor on the platter of things that wreak havoc on their minds on a daily basis.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), one in four college students has a diagnosable mental health issue on their hands. Added to other mental pressures is the fact that college students are most at risk for developing some form of eating disorder. From food insecurity to mental health and vice versa. The downward spiral just seems to get worse and worse as more factors are added in.

So how exactly does one break out of this spiral? While the issue of a college student facing food insecurity may feel like a personal issue — and it is — it isn’t something that can be solved by one person. Colleges are starting to provide solutions beyond just providing money for low-income students’ dietary needs. Colleges are setting up food pantries for better access to nutritional food. Food banks to provide meals during school breaks are also beginning to pop up. Plans like SNAP are also available for non-traditional students who might have other family to look after.

But there is one thing that needs to be done beyond institutions providing solutions to students’ nutritional needs — breaking apart the broke college student trope. It might have originated in college student’s food insecurity and related issues, but the fact remains that it is promulgated as a joke. A group of friends going shopping and complaining about not being able to buy a shirt because they are “too broke.”

Complaining about being broke all the time because their bank balance might be low. Or playing along with the role of the broke college kid who has no money but somehow manages to get their hands on alcohol every weekend. The trope has been so often portrayed in entertainment and social media that people just expect it to happen in real life, often tailoring their actions to fit that perfect movie world.

But like all “jokes” that stem from deeper rooted social and mental issues, saying it only makes the problem worse. Joking about everyone being broke in college even when one has enough resources to be comfortable just creates an atmosphere of stigma for those who want to ask for help. It ties into the ongoing social issue of those with privilege helping to provide a space for those without to exist in relative peace.

Institutions are helping students who are actually broke get meals. But the reality these students face will not be taken seriously without a change in the way we think about this issue — without a change in the way we use the phrase “broke college student” to fool around.

Perhaps there is a long way to go to provide for the many college students who are food insecure. But at least those who are relatively better off have the power to create an environment where more people are aware of this issue, and where more people will work toward making it better. Like all jokes that cause more harm than good, making the “broke college student” disappear might just help truly broke college students figure out their problem with food insecurity.

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