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Living on pizza is considered a part of college life, but some students may not be able to afford even that small luxury. Feeling insecure about where your next meal is coming from has psychological and academic effects on college students. Research shows that students who experience food insecurity are less likely to earn As and more likely to earn Bs, Cs, or below. And, college food insecurity is associated with stopping and starting school and taking longer to graduate. It can be tough to concentrate on academics when you’re hungry.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food insecurity as “the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe food, or the ability to acquire such food in a socially acceptable manner.” Of course, it exists on a continuum from mild to severe and can be chronic or transitory based on various factors. But one thing is clear, food insecurity is a problem for a large number of undergraduate students.
Statistics on college students facing food insecurity
The 2021 #RealCollege Survey of basic needs insecurity, led by the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University, was completed by more than 195,000 students at 202 four-year and two-year colleges and universities in 42 states. It found that 38% experienced food insecurity in the 30 days prior to the survey. One essential item to factor in is that the makeup of college students has changed in recent decades. In fact, less than one-third of students enroll full-time in college directly after high school and remain financially dependent on their parents. Instead, seven out of 10 college students are considered “nontraditional,” meaning they possess the following characteristics:
- Financial independence from parents
- Enrolled part-time
- Work full-time while in school
- Caretakers for dependents
- Didn’t receive a high school diploma
Additionally, college students are entering school later than students in the past. The average age of college students is 26. As such, many students balance school work with parenting, with 22% of students caring for child dependents and 14% doing so as single parents. Overall, the share of college students with low household incomes has increased. When these factors are combined with the rising cost of education, many adult students look to financial aid to help make ends meet.
Sadly, college students of color are more likely to experience food insecurity than white students. Research shows that minority students who receive multiple forms of financial aid or experience housing insecurity are more likely to be food insecure. The association between student food insecurity and financial aid suggests that typical aid packages and work-study programs fail to meet students’ basic needs.
What’s more, the same student groups that struggle to cover the essentials also struggle to make it to graduation, with low-income, Black, and Hispanic students dropping out at steeper rates. And without a degree, these students become more likely to experience food insecurity in the future.
The impact of food insecurity on college students
There are few formal studies that have definitively linked food insecurity to objective outcomes about academic success. However, one study published in the Journal of American College Health is informative. Its insights and data are based on results from an online survey of nearly 14,000 undergraduates at a mid-sized public university, where 48% of respondents said they were food insecure.
In the study, food-insecure respondents reported lower concentration, energy, test scores, and student retention. Results also suggest a relationship between food security and mental health (e.g., depression, anxiety, disordered eating, suicide ideation — all of which influence academic performance). And, food insecurity coincides with other factors that hamper student success, like difficulties with housing, transportation, time management, employment, and affording books and supplies.
These results also showed that food insecurity is inversely associated with falling within the upper 10% GPA — meaning that food-secure students are three times more likely than their food-insecure peers to be among the top academic achievers. Students facing food insecurity are two times more likely than their food-secure counterparts to fall in the lowest 10% GPA. According to the data, the association between food insecurity and academic performance is “clear and persistent.”
What higher education leaders can do to support food insecure students
Arguably, college student hunger across America’s university system is a systemic problem. And given the growing economic inequality and diminished funding for higher education, solutions are vital to help those suffering now and to prevent future students from experiencing food insecurity. Here are a few ways educators and administrators can work to reduce the stigma around food insecurity.
Communicate with all students about these issues to reduce stigma and avoid singling out individuals. Example: include a statement about food resources in syllabi and discuss with students at the beginning of the semester.
Expand emergency relief funding for students in need. Student affairs professionals can serve as brokers for students accessing these funds to reduce rates of food insecurity.
Consider enrollment in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) program, and advocate for state and federal level policy changes that expand eligibility and make participation easier for students.
Provide students with a basic meal plan guarantee as part of a financial aid plan. Encourage students, faculty, and administrators to invest in campus initiatives such as student-led food recovery programs.
Do your students have the resources to thrive?
Resources for food-insecure students
If you’re on the frontlines with students struggling with food insecurity, here are five resources for information on food pantries and realistic lifestyle tips:
1. College and University Food Bank Alliance
The College and University Food Bank Alliance (CUFBA) is a professional organization of campus-based programs focused on alleviating food insecurity, hunger, and poverty among college and university students in the U.S.
2. National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness
The National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness is committed to addressing food insecurity and ending homelessness by educating, engaging, and training college students to directly meet individuals’ immediate needs, while advocating for long-term systemic solutions from New York to San Francisco.
3. Feeding America
The Feeding America network is the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization, connecting people with food and ending low food security. Donors, staff, and volunteers all play an important advocacy role in our efforts to address food insecurity in the United States.
4. FLIP National
FLIP is a national community of first-generation and low-income students and supporters fighting to provide resources, advocate policy changes and create safe spaces for first-generation and low-income students.
5. Not-Rich Guides
A crowdsourced guide for navigating campus life for the “not-rich,” was created by two college students who were inspired to create the guidebook after their student government published its own about “cost-effective” living at their university.
How telehealth supports food-insecure students
TimelyMD is introducing a new service this fall for basic needs support. Through the easy-to-use TimelyCare app, students can be connected with free or reduced-cost programs that provide support for services such as:
- In-person health care
- Food assistance
- Housing assistance
- Transit support
- Paying bills
- Legal services
In response to recent community college student survey results, TimelyMD plans to launch basic needs support to help students navigate available resources. Patient care advisors will be available to connect college students with local government agencies, non-profit organizations, and programs on college campuses that will help with their in-the-moment needs. Examples include campus food pantries, county housing assistance programs, or in-person providers in their neighborhoods that use sliding-fee scale payment methods.
Contact TimelyMD for more information about how telehealth services like health coaching and on-demand mental health can help your students thrive.