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Nearly half of America's college students are going hungry, study says

Dec 13, 2016

The National School Lunch Program helps keep low-income kids from going hungry while they're in school. Over 21 million K-12 students in the U.S. received free and reduced-priced school lunches during the 2014-2015 school year.

But what happens to these same kids when they go off to college?

A recent study found nearly half of college students across the country are food insecure. That means they struggle just to get enough affordable, nutritious food.

Researchers from the College and University Food Bank Alliance (CUFBA) surveyed more than 3,000 students at a mix of 34 community and four-year colleges.

According to the report, “Hunger on Campus: The Challenge of Food Insecurity for College Students,” 48% of college students experienced food insecurity in the previous 30 days. 22% of them had what were considered very low levels of food security.

Hunger is a problem for students even if they are employed, have a campus meal plan or seek other financial help. Clare Cady is an author of the report and co-founder of CUFBA. She told CNN Money:

A majority of students who are food insecure were also working and receiving financial aid. We're talking about students who are doing all the things we'd expect them to do and they're still not able to support themselves while in school.

Food insecurity presents students with a number of challenges. Students often have to decide between buying food or required textbooks. And the physical effects of hunger can impact their ability to learn, leading them to miss or drop classes.

Since a college degree is lauded as the surest ticket to a middle class income, many students will do whatever it takes to obtain it - including going hungry. According to the National Education Association:

That’s why they skip meals to pay for books, or cover the rent. In a desperate but hopeful calculus, they opt to starve the student they are now to invest in the nurse, or teacher, or accountant that they someday hope to be. But it leaves them extremely vulnerable, and not very ready to learn, either.

The high percentage of food-insecure students can largely be attributed to the fact that the cost of college continues to rise faster than income. The average total cost of public college tuition rose 10% over the past five years, while the median family income rose just 7% over the same period, according to CNN Money:

One reason for the rise in cost is that public colleges are still feeling the effects of a dramatic cut in state funding during the recession. While states are beginning to pump more money back into public university school systems, the total is still about 9% less in inflation-adjusted dollars from its peak in 2007.

The number of food banks on college campuses is exploding. We've previously discussed this topic, and we've got a list of multiple Michigan institutions that have them that you can find here. But many of these services are funded by donations, and there is only so much they can do for food insecure students.

The findings of the recent study highlight the challenges college students face and the need for effective solutions. The researchers recommend several steps school leaders and policymakers can take to help lessen student food insecurity and reduce its impact on student success, including:

  • 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.
  • More significantly, policymakers should take steps to improve students’ access to existing federal programs, including expanding the SNAP eligibility requirements for college students, simplifying the FAFSA process (particularly for homeless students), and adding food security measurements to the annual National Postsecondary Student Aid Study.