New Study: Hunger May Threaten Nearly Half of All College Students

For Immediate Release

Earlier today, a group of campus-based organizations released results from the nation’s most comprehensive survey to date on food insecurity on college campuses.  The report finds that nearly half of the students surveyed were food insecure and 22% qualified as hungry, meaning that they had the very lowest levels of food security.

“This report finds that hunger is a reality for far too many college students,” said James Dubick, one of the report’s authors and an organizer with the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness.  “Food insecurity is potentially undermining the educational success of countless thousands of students.”

The report, “Hunger on Campus,” is based on a nationwide survey of college students, the broadest study on this issue to date.  The study sample includes nearly 3,800 students in 12 states attending eight community colleges and 26 four-year colleges and universities.  The report is authored by a collection of campus-based groups, including the College and University Food Bank Alliance, the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness, the Student Government Resource Center, and the Student Public Interest Research Groups.

Among the report’s findings:

  • 48% of students reported food insecurity, including 22% who reported very low levels of food security that qualify them as hungry.
  • Hunger is a problem at both two-year and four-year institutions. 25% of community college students qualified as having very low food security, compared to 20% at four-year schools.
  • Food insecurity was more prevalent among students of color.  Fully 57% of Black or African American students reported food insecurity, compared to 40% of non-Hispanic white students.
  • More than half of all first-generation students (56%) were food insecure, compared to 45% of students who had at least one parent who attended college.

“As our nation struggles with the widening attainment gap for low-income, first-generation students and students of color, it is critical to understand the role poverty, food insecurity and housing insecurity play in persistence and degree completion for these students,“ said Kevin Kruger, President of NASPA – Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.  “While the prevalence of campus food banks and food pantries is increasing nationwide, this groundbreaking research should inspire American institutions to do more to support the thousands of college students who experience food insecurity.”

The study also took a close look at the approximately 1,800 students who reported experiencing food insecurity, in order to better understand their experiences.  It discovered that food insecurity is a problem even for students who are employed, participate in a campus meal plan, or seek other financial or material help.

  • 56% of food insecure students reported having a paying job.  Of those, 38% worked 20 hours or more per week.
  • Being enrolled in a meal plan with a campus dining hall does not eliminate the threat of food insecurity.  Among the respondents from four-year colleges, 43% of meal plan enrollees still experienced food insecurity.
  • Three in four food insecure students received some form of financial aid.  More than half (52%) received Pell Grants and 37% took out student loans during the current academic year.
  • 61% of food insecure students reported that their household had utilized at least one aid service in the past 12 months.  25% reported using the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps), making it the most widely used food program.

“The typical food insecure student in this study is working part-time, receives financial aid, and is reaching out for assistance from aid programs – and is still struggling to get by,” said Dubick.  “When we have so many students who are doing everything right but still can’t afford food, it means we’re failing to provide these students with a viable path to success in their higher education.”

The report’s findings reinforce the growing understanding that food insecurity presents a serious challenge for today’s college students, and highlight the need for additional research to better understand this problem and explore effective solutions.

“This study is meant to deepen our understanding not only of the prevalence of student food insecurity, but also of how and where it manifests,” said Clare Cady, one of the authors of the report and Director of the College and University Food Bank Alliance. “These findings make it clear that we need to do more to alleviate student poverty and its symptoms.  Student hunger is a clear barrier to student success.”

School leaders and policymakers can take a number of steps to help lessen student food insecurity and reduce its threat to educational quality and student success.

  • Colleges should pursue a wide range of creative ways to address food insecurity, including the creation of campus food pantries, campus community gardens, food recovery programs, and coordinated benefits access programs.
  • Policymakers should improve students’ access to existing federal programs by expanding the SNAP eligibility requirements for college students, simplifying the FAFSA process, and adding food security measurements to the annual National Postsecondary Student Aid Study.

The report also highlights some of the most innovative programs developed on college campuses to address food insecurity. Among them:

  • Oregon State University and Humboldt State University both have on-campus stores which accept food stamps.
  • In the CUNY system, students with financial emergencies can apply for support from the Carroll and Milton Petrie Foundation Emergency Grant Fund.
  • At California State University, Fresno, the Catered Cupboard mobile app notifies students when an on-campus catered event ends and there is leftover food available.

Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor at Temple University and founder of the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, provided a preface for the report. In it she writes that, “At this point, we need to move beyond being surprised at the numbers and develop action plans, and the authors of this report provide many recommendations for that critical work.”

Download the “Hunger on Campus” report here: 

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The College and University Food Bank Alliance (CUFBA), co-founded by the Michigan State University Student Food Bank and the Oregon State University Food Pantry, is a professional organization consisting of campus-based programs focused on alleviating food insecurity, hunger, and poverty among college and university students in the United States.  CUFBA provides support, training, and resources for campus food banks/pantries that primarily serve students.

The National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness (NSCAHH) organizes college students to end hunger and homelessness.  NSCAHH educates, trains, and engages students to use a variety of strategies to address these problems, including direct service, education, and fundraising.

The Student Government Resource Center (SGRC) works to strengthen student governments into more effective vehicles for student engagement and empowerment.  SGRC provides student government leaders with the training and resources to succeed, from how to run productive meetings to how to win changes in campus policies and be effective advocates for students.

The Student Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs) are independent statewide student organizations that work on issues including environmental protection, consumer protection, and hunger and homelessness.  For more than 40 years, students working with their campus PIRG chapters have been making a real difference in people’s lives and winning concrete changes to build a better world.