U.S. Colleges’ Quest to Solve Food Insecurity on Campus

Covid-19 has exerted catastrophic impact on the world’s economy, consequently decreasing the quality of life across the U.S. While the economic downturn casts ominous shadow over the lives and the future of many college students, it has especially exacerbated the already dwindling livelihood of students with food insecurity.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as “a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.” And that is exactly what many students in the U.S. are experiencing. According to the #RealCollege survey published early last year by The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, 29 percent of four-year college students and 38 percent of two-year college students faced difficulties with food insecurity in fall 2020.

The problem is more prevalent among the students of color. The survey shows that 70 percent of Black students experienced food and housing insecurity compared to 54 percent among White students. It is also reported in the survey that students who face basic needs insecurity are more likely to suffer from depression and high stress level, which can significantly affect their quality of life and academic performance.

However, students are not the only population on campus affected by food insecurity; faculty and staff members are also having uncertain access to adequate amount of food. According to a 2020 report by the American Federation of Teachers, 26 percent of adjunct faculties reported having food insecurity or having to reduce the quality of food they consume.

What Colleges are Doing to Help Food Insecurity

Establishing Food Pantries

Colleges are taking different measures to tackle food insecurity problem on their campuses. Some are providing fresh groceries, while the others are distributing nonperishables or frozen food items to students, faculty, and staff.

For instance, the University of North Carolina at Asheville (UNC Asheville) not only gives out nonperishable food and fresh vegetable from the campus garden, but also teaches students how to search for food in nature. However, the foraging education program has not yet reopened since the pandemic started.

On the other hand, Saint Xavier University (SXU) in Illinois implemented Champ’s Kitchen, a campus food pantry, to alleviate food insecurity problem at the school. Instead of handing out food to those in need of food, the school allowed students, faculty, staff, and their families to freely access the food pantry. Along with food, it also offers nonperishable products, such as toiletries and feminine hygiene.

Unused Meal Plan Donations

Students with meal plans frequently have meal swipes left at the end of a semester. As there are often limits on how many left-over meal plans can roll over to the following semester, allowing students to donate their extra meal is an efficient way to provide meals to hungry students.

Swipe Out Hunger, a nonprofit organization working to end student hunger, for example, partners with colleges across the U.S. to distribute unused meal swipes to students experiencing food insecurity.

Since 2021, the program is reaching out to greater number of students in need of food. Photo: United States Department of Agriculture
SNAP and the Federal Assistance

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is a federal social welfare program that provides eligible low-income individuals or households with a card to purchase eligible food each month at authorized retail food stores.

Although the program has an admirable intention, most college students did not qualify under the original eligibility requirement. However, the Consolidated Appropriations Act in 2021 changed the program’s guidelines to allow work-study eligible students and those with zero expected family contributions to qualify for SNAP.

To make SNAP even more accessible to students, Oregon State University (OSU) created a program called, SNAP Sign-Up Support, providing a platform where students can assist their peers with the application process.

Nicole Hindes, director of the Human Service Resource Center at OSU, says, “When a student is helping another student with a SNAP application, it sometimes feels like it’s your friend helping you. That makes it more accessible and feel lower-stakes. We are seeing the power of relationships, connections, and community.”

How to Encourage Students to Seek Help

One of the challenges with addressing food insecurity is hesitancy by students to seek help, fearing to be judged by peers. Colleges can help reduce such hesitancy by creating a comfortable campus environment in which students with food insecurity can feel more welcomed and less lonely.

Rachel Sumekh, founder and CEO of Swipe Out Hunger, suggests schools to change the wordings of campus advertisements from “are you hungry, come to this location” to “last week, two out of three students came by the food pantry to receive free food.”

“The best thing we can do to address stigma is change the culture on campus to be representative [of all students],” she says.


Read More: The Impact of the Pandemic on U.S. Colleges