Yesterday, I received a letter in the mail from a local food bank. It was a reminder, at a time when many of us celebrated Thanksgiving with more than ample amounts of food, that there are many in our community for whom hunger is a daily struggle. A heightened awareness of food insecurity tends to accompany this time of year, and in that spirit, it is important to remember that this issue is present [or lasts?] throughout the year, one not just limited to families and individuals in the community. It also affects students on college campuses.
Last month, the findings from a study investigating student food security on campuses were released. The study surveyed students at 26 four-year colleges and 8 community colleges. This was the first study of its kind to sample students from more than just one university, and according to James Dubick, one of the report’s authors, it offers a snapshot of students’ food insecurity.
The study was conducted by a group of organizations all focused on student needs: the College and University Food Bank Alliance, the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness, the Student Government Resource Center, and Student Public Interest Research Groups. Some key findings from the study include:
- 48% of respondents reported food insecurity in the previous 30 days, including 22% with very low levels of food security that qualify them as hungry. This is consistent with prior studies.
- 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.
- 64% of food insecure students reported experiencing some type of housing insecurity as well.
- Of those students who reported food insecurity, 32% thought that hunger or housing problems were impacting their education.
Another article reporting on campus hunger, published on November 22, 2016 in Inside Higher Ed, highlighted the policy issues that are causing campuses to take action on student hunger. The author highlighted problems caused by the fact that multiple and conflicting congressional committees oversee policies affecting assistance for college students. Pell Grant legislation, for example, is overseen by the Education and Workforce Committee, whereas food assistance legislation is overseen by the Committee on Agriculture. This makes coordinated policy change extremely difficult.
Fortunately, many campuses have recognized the impact that food insecurity has on their students, and they have created their own programs, often funded by donors, to address the issue. Michigan State University initiated the first campus-based food assistance program in the country, which has been run by students since 1993. Michigan State, along with Oregon State University, also cofounded the College and University Food Bank Alliance. To date, nearly 400 additional institutions have set up food banks on their campuses.
While this grassroots effort to address campus hunger is a start, it isn’t a permanent solution. Some college campuses have taken different routes to address the issue. Two colleges, Humboldt State University and Oregon State University, have gone through the arduous process of applying to be able to accept SNAP (supplemental nutrition assistance program) benefits. Given that Oregon State University first applied for the SNAP program in 2010 and didn’t meet requirements until 2015 illustrates how difficult this option to alleviate campus hunger can be. Not to mention that this is only for the ability to accept benefits, you have to also take into account the amount of time students would have to take to navigate the process and meet the requirements to benefit from the SNAP program.
Student hunger needs to be put in the spotlight so policy makers feel urgency from the public. One way campuses can work toward this is by developing studies to track student food security on their campuses. With very few studies documenting food insecurity on college campuses, it is hard for policy makers to provide support for policy change.
Until we can provide policy makers with more substantive evidence so they can successfully make a case to the federal government, all roads to easing campus hunger institutionally will be long and complicated.
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