Hunger on college campuses: It's a real thing

Four friends in coffee shop using laptop
College friends at a coffee shop.

An 18-year-old patient of mine recently started college. After overcoming many hurdles in life, including the death of one parent and the absence of the other, this outstanding athlete and student was recruited by a coach at a four-year university—and given a full scholarship. But I’m worried: Will my patient have food insecurity?

We don’t usually think of college students as having food insecurity. It’s time that we do. Food insecurity, as defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is limited ability to acquire, or uncertain availability of, nutritionally adequate and safe foods. A 2015 study found that college students were far more likely than the general population to suffer from food insecurity.

Hunger is more than a pang. It is defined as a very high level of food insecurity. In fact, 22 percent of college students in the U.S. are hungry, according to a 2016 report, Hunger on Campus, which surveyed almost 4,000 college students. The findings may alarm you:

  • Almost half (48 percent) reported food insecurity, including 22 percent with very low levels of food security that qualify them as hungry.
  • Food insecurity was more prevalent among students of color: 57 percent of African American students reported food insecurity, compared to 40 percent of white students.
  • More than half (56 percent) of first-generation college students were food-insecure, compared to 45 percent of students who had a parent who attended college.
  • Almost two-thirds (64 percent) received some form of financial aid.
  • More than half (56 percent) of food-insecure students reported having a paying job, but were still food-insecure.
  • Almost two-thirds (64 percent) of food-insecure students also reported housing insecurity.

Students who reported food or housing insecurity felt that these problems caused them to:

  • Not buy a required textbook (55 percent).
  • Miss a class (53 percent).
  • Drop a class (25 percent).

Students at community colleges are even more likely to be hungry. A recent survey of more than 33,000 community college students found that 33 percent were hungry.

Hunger hurts. It causes fatigue and poor concentration and can contribute to depression and anxiety. Students that are hungry consume cheaper and higher-calorie foods with limited nutritional value, which can lead to anemia, infections, and chronic illnesses including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes — even obesity.

I did the math based on projected college enrollment: More than four million students will go hungry this year. Feeding these individuals and preventing hunger on campuses is the mission of organizations like these:

  • The National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness. This is a nonprofit organization that “is committed to ending hunger and homelessness by educating, engaging, and training students to directly meet individuals’ immediate needs while advocating for long-term systemic solutions and food recovery programs and coordinated benefits access programs.”
  • Challah for Hunger is a Philadelphia nonprofit organization that creates communities inspired and equipped to fight hunger. Challah for Hunger is working with student volunteers on 80 campuses to learn more about college food insecurity and to advocate for change through an initiative called the Campus Hunger Project. The project includes research, an educational campaign, and a learning community where students from multiple campuses create projects to help food-insecure students.

My advice:
Parents and guardians, talk with your children about what it means to have food insecurity. Together, donate to food pantries and contribute money to organizations that fight hunger.

Parents and guardians of college-age children, discuss the problem of food insecurity on college campuses and make sure your child is not one of the 22 percent to 33 percent. Encourage participation in campus projects aimed at fighting hunger on college campuses. If your children identify peers with food insecurity, they should encourage them to get help from advisers, deans, financial aid officers, or student health centers. The “Hunger on Campus” report contains additional resources for college students with food insecurity.

Our students should be hungry for knowledge — not hungry for food.