In the year before the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, 10.5 percent of US households, or roughly 35 million Americans, were food insecure. This number has jumped significantly since March 2020, with some estimating that the rate has doubled. Food insecurity is defined by the US Department of Agriculture as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy lifestyle. Notably, this crisis profoundly impacts college students, a population whose food insecurity issues are largely under-recognized, under-examined, and under-addressed. While Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits were temporarily extended to college-age students during the pandemic, these benefits are set to expire without legislative action and in many cases, without options for the college students impacted. This article describes the factors involved in food insecurity on campus and lays out a path forward including, but not limited to, making the extension of SNAP benefits to college students permanent.
Prior to the pandemic, a staggering 30 percent of all college students experienced food insecurity at some point in their college careers. According to the most recent Hope Survey from fall 2020, 38 percent of students in two-year colleges and 29 percent of students at four-year colleges reported experiencing food insecurity in the previous 30 days. The report also highlighted significant racial and ethnic disparities: 75 percent of Indigenous, 70 percent Black, and 70 percent of American Indian or Alaska Native students experienced food insecurity, housing insecurity or homelessness, compared to 54 percent of White students.
Due to many university campus closures, vital services such as food assistance were also reduced or frozen for students in need. College-aged individuals between 18 and 24 were also the most likely to experience unemployment during the pandemic. When taken in aggregate, these factors worsened the ability of low-income and vulnerable students to meet basic needs and increased food insecurity by estimates of up to 15 percent in a majority female, low-income, racial minority sample of students. We can and should do better for these students but doing so requires that we do not depend solely on universities to create solutions for needs that are best met and sustained through the expansion of tried and successful federal approaches.
The Impact Of Food Insecurity On College Student Success
Food insecurity while in college can have detrimental effects on students’ academic performance and health. The mixture of food insecurity and stress of college contributes to food-insecure students being more likely to fall into a lower GPA category compared to their food-secure counterparts, diminishes students’ ability to excel in class, and contributes to lower attendance and completion rates. In addition to academic performance, the health and well-being of students also suffer because of food insecurity. Students who are food insecure are more likely to report indicators of stress and depression. Furthermore, to make their food dollars stretch, food-insecure students choose cheaper, highly processed, often fast foods that can contribute to the overconsumption of added sugars, refined grains, and added fats. These behaviors are associated with an increased risk of obesity, a health condition that follows them through their lifetime. All these issues compound on one another to promote poorer health and education outcomes in students who experience food insecurity.
The root causes of food insecurity on college campuses are complex, as many of the factors are interrelated. Key contributing factors include financial insecurity, housing insecurity, work or family obligations, and student loan debt. Food insecure students are more likely to be financially independent, of a racial or ethnic minority background, living off campus with roommates, working while attending school, or receiving a Pell grant. First-year college freshmen are particularly susceptible to these factors as they transition from high school to college and explore their newfound autonomy in a college setting. Supporting food access can ensure that all students have an equitable chance at success in college.
Current Efforts Are The First Step, But More Is Needed
In the absence of consistent and comprehensive federal policy options, universities are left to address students’ food insecurity on their own. University approaches and funding toward this issue vary widely by institution and create a patchwork approach that is neither consistent, sustainable, or equitable. A common intervention used by universities to address food insecurity among students is to establish a food pantry. This model has shown success in bridging the gap between students experiencing food insecurity and access to nutritious food, yet the model is limited in reach and scope. Pantries are often not conveniently located, have limited hours, or are closed during holidays or between semesters.
Food pantries are often run and supported by student organizations, which can suffer from ebbs and flows of available and interested student leadership. They also tend to rely on direct food donations from the community, limiting their ability to predict and plan food distributions. An additional hurdle is a potential stigma associated with asking for help and visiting a physical pantry location.
Beyond pantries, many two- and four-year institutions often have a website where students can access information about food and other assistance programs (including SNAP-enrollment assistance). However, a list of resources on a website is not enough to ensure that students are aware of their eligibility or are able to navigate the complicated application processes to take advantage of such programs. Therefore, colleges and universities need to better coordinate programs aimed at supporting students and increase their outreach efforts to at-risk students to help them navigate benefits.
Despite the need for a more comprehensive approach to solving this problem, pre-pandemic federal food safety-net policies limited college students’ access to SNAP, the largest food safety net in the US. These limits were due to decades-old restrictions on eligibility for most full-time college students; full-time students were required to meet a “qualifying exemption,” such as working more than 20 hours per week or caring for a child, to qualify for benefits. The COVID-19 pandemic brought the issue of food insecurity into sharp focus resulting in a temporary expansion in SNAP eligibility for college students as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021. The expansion allows students who are eligible for state or federally financed work study or those with an expected family contribution of zero to receive benefits.
These new changes will make approximately six million more students eligible for SNAP who didn’t qualify previously. While this is an important step toward increasing food access in this population, pre-pandemic enrollment rates in SNAP for eligible college students were low, with only 31 percent of the estimated 7.3 million students eligible for the program enrolled. This reflects gaps in awareness, outreach, and use of this important safety-net component. In addition, this expansion is only temporary and is set to expire 30 days after the federal government lifts the official designation of the nationwide COVID-19 public health emergency (timeline yet to be announced).
In May 2021, two bills aimed at addressing food insecurity on college campuses were introduced, one in the House (HR 1919 EATS Act of 2021) and one in the Senate (S 1569 Student Food Security Act of 2021). Both bills are backed by prominent hunger and poverty relief organizations (such as Center for Law and Social Policy, Feeding America, and Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice) and would make permanent the pandemic era expansions in SNAP eligibility. The Senate bill goes beyond just SNAP expansion and calls for increased outreach to students about eligibility and enrollment in benefits programs. It would require increased data collection on food and housing insecurity, establishing a grant program that colleges and universities can apply for to improve their support systems, and initiating a pilot study examining the use of SNAP benefits in campuses dining locations. However, as of the writing of this post, neither bill has made it out of their respective committees in Congress.
In addition to the federal response, a handful of states have passed bills to assist college students meet their food needs. The Hunger-Free Campus Bill, supported by Swipe Out Hunger, has been passed in California, New Jersey, Maryland, and Minnesota and has been introduced in six other states. The bill involves starting a program in which students can donate extra meal swipes from their meal program to other students, establishing a campus food pantry, and creating or expanding SNAP enrollment assistance on campus. While these bills are taking steps to address hunger, the reality is that their implementation and reach are highly variable, unsustainable, and lead to a patchwork approach. First, the main program to address food insecurity in these bills is student donation of meal swipes. However, meal swipe donations can have limited reach as many students do not have meal plans on campus. Furthermore, donating meal swipes places the burden of addressing food insecurity on students themselves, and donation levels can vary widely. Finally, research has shown that students are reporting food insecurity while having meals still left in their meal plan, likely due to time constraints around campus dining location operating hours and students’ work and school schedules. The second program in these bills, establishing a food pantry, can also have inconsistent reach and implementation as discussed above (that is, stigma associated with usage, limited hours, and sometimes lack of fresh, healthy options). Finally, the efforts these bills place on expanding SNAP enrollment assistance on campus is a more sustainable option as it gets students into the government assistance system and empowers them to purchase their own food; however, it is limited by federal restrictions on SNAP enrollment for this group.
In light of the high levels of food insecurity on college campuses, the impact food insecurity has on the success of college students especially those from already disadvantaged backgrounds, and the current dearth of comprehensive programs to address the issue, concrete and actionable steps should be taken to create a comprehensive response.
One clear option to alleviate college student food insecurity is to make the current SNAP expansion a permanent change. Improved communication strategies are needed to connect eligible students with this and other social supports. In addition to SNAP, the federal government could consider an expansion of the National School Lunch Plan to two- and four-year institutions. This program, which already provides meals for more than 30 million young people a day, could be implemented on college campuses in several ways; colleges could provide nutritious, low-cost or free meals to those who qualify through already-established on-campus dining facilities, or qualifying students could be provided direct meal benefits on their student accounts to be used in campus dining facilities. Either option would require colleges to provide nutritious meals that would support the physical and mental health of the students they serve. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid already provides a mechanism through which income eligibility could be determined.
While this strategy could go a long way to help students meet their basic food needs, there is still a need for a rigorous study of program implementation strategies on campus. It is also vital for universities to work in concert with public safety-net programs to offer comprehensive and consistent food security and basic-needs support to better serve and retain the most vulnerable students.
Low-income youth do not magically transform into middle-class youth once they turn 18 years old or begin college. Rather, their basic needs often increase as less aid is available and their challenges become all too often invisible in the mirage of how our society envisions college life. It is crucial to give the issue of food insecurity on college campuses the attention it deserves. Continued under-recognition and under-discussion only exacerbate the challenges and stigma for impacted students. This crisis existed before the pandemic and will continue beyond it, requiring a solution that also continues after the pandemic.
We cannot continue to rely on a patchwork system to address campus food insecurity that leads to inequitable access to a college education. Together, we have a duty to create and sustain a consistent and reliable federal response to maintain and make permanent the SNAP expansions that were put in place in early 2021 and assist students to enroll. Finally, it is necessary to pass the comprehensive Senate legislation introduced to address food insecurity on college campuses.
The evidence consistently shows that a college education leads to a higher likelihood of future employment, higher wages, and reduced need for public assistance. We must support the ability of low-income students to complete their higher education; similar to investments in the basic needs of younger low-income children, this will help interrupt the intergenerational cycle of poverty and fulfill the promise and possibilities that higher education offers.