Food Insecurity on College Campuses: Prevalence, Consequences and Solutions
Food insecurity in the United Sates has become a topic of high concern due to the rapid rate at which it has increased in recent years. Food insecurity is defined as “the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways” (Holben & Marshall 2017). Food insecurity is an issue that must be addressed, as the consequences are devastating for those that are affected. Until recently, researchers have focused on food insecurity in the United States by considering factors such as race, gender and age to analyze food insecurity in households. However, there is not a large amount of research pertaining to food insecurity on college campuses. As a population that is going through many changes and new challenges, college campuses are a prime area for food insecurity. As such, in recent years efforts have increased to collect data on the prevalence of food insecurity on college campuses. There are multiple factors to consider when looking at the data that has been found, however it is clear that food insecurity is not only an issue that needs to be addressed in individual households but also an issue that must be addressed on campuses. By being aware of trends in food insecurity, understanding the risk factors, and being educated about the negative impacts, programs can be developed and implemented to reduce food insecurity on college campuses.
In order to understand food insecurity on college campuses, it is important to know the national trends for food insecurity. Recent studies have reported that 14% of all households in the United States are food insecure. Of households that have children, 19% are food insecure. When analyzing food insecurity by race, it was found that 10.5% of White households were food insecure, while 22.4% of Hispanic households were food insecure and 26.1% of Black households were food insecure (Balistreri 2016). On the national level, the data is clear that multiple factors contribute to the likeliness of an individual to experience food insecurity. In comparison, a compilation of studies from nine universities revealed that an average of 32% of college students are food insecure, which is more than two times the rate in the general population. The same study also reported that “students of color, younger students, students with children, and financially independent students are more likely to be food insecure” (Bruening et al. 2017). While the rates of food insecurity on college campuses are higher than the national rates, similar trends are seen when comparing the impact of race, children and socioeconomic status. Most of the studies relating to food insecurity on college campuses have been conducted at 4-year public institutions with a focus on the undergraduate population. To fully understand food insecurity on college campuses, future studies can be expanded to private 4-year institutions, as well as looking at the prevalence of food insecurity in the graduate student population.
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With trends that indicate higher rates of food insecurity on college campuses than the reported national average, it is important to understand the risk factors that increase the likeliness a student will be food insecure. In a study conducted at 10 California public universities, researchers found that there are four main risk factors that contribute to food insecurity. First, it was found that age is a contributing factor, and that younger students are more likely to be food insecure. Secondly, minorities have a much higher risk of being food insecure than do white students. Perhaps the most influential factor is previous experience of food insecurity as a child. A student that lived in a food insecure household was much more likely to experience food insecurity once on campus than a student coming from a food secure home. Finally, a much higher proportion of food insecure students were receiving need-based financial aid such as loans, grants and scholarships compared to those that were food secure (Martinez et al. 2018). A contributing factor to younger students having a higher risk for food insecurity is lack of education about proper budgeting. With new independence, younger students often struggle to allocate their money in a way that allows for a healthy and balanced diet. When considering the financial aid a student is receiving, it is important to remember that tuition is not the only cost of attending college. Students must pay for textbooks, housing, and in some cases transportation. Financial aid can only be put toward certain expenses, leaving the student to cover the rest. This decreases the amount of income a student has available to spend on meals, consequently increasing the likeliness of food insecurity. Through analyzing the risk factors for food insecurity in this way, colleges and universities are better equipped to identify students that might be facing food insecurity and therefore better provide resources to the impacted population.
Equally important as understanding risk factors is understanding the impact food insecurity has on students. Most importantly, food insecurity contributes to malnutrition. Those living with food insecurity tend to have diets high in calories from fat and low in fruits, vegetables and vitamins. When the body does not receive adequate amounts of nutrients, there is an increased likelihood for poor health, including chronic health issues such as anemia or asthma. Food insecurity not only has implications for physical well-being, but it also impacts mental health, as food insecurity has been associated with depression and anxiety (Holben & Marshall 2017). The negative impacts of food insecurity are especially felt by college students. Classes, homework, and extracurriculars take energy, and food insecure students often lack the proper intake of nutrients to sustain daily activities. Beyond the impacts on health, food insecurity affects performance in the classroom. Food insecure students have been found to have a more difficult time concentrating in class and lower GPAs compared to their food secure counterparts (El Zein et al. 2018). Not only do students lack the nutrients the brain and body need to be successful throughout the day and in classes, but it is likely that food insecure students also have at least one job. While a job is beneficial to a student by bringing in income, it can be detrimental because there is less time available for the student to put enough time into studying. Less time also increases the chances that a student will make unhealthy, fast choices for food rather than a healthy meal that may require time or resources to prepare that a student does not have, only further contributing to the problem. When the negative impacts of food insecurity are understood, action can be taken to improve the problem.
The startling number of college students facing food insecurity and the overall negative impacts it presents has prompted an in-depth search for ways to alleviate food insecurity on college campuses. As more research has emerged, the response to the issue has increased and multiple programs have developed in an attempt to reduce food insecurity. The most widespread solution is the opening of food pantries located on college campuses for student use. This gives students access to food that they otherwise would not have been able to get. However, a study conducted at the University of Florida found that there were barriers preventing student use of the food pantry, such as concerns about social stigma, or the pantry having inaccessible hours of operation (El Zein et al. 2018). With this information, universities can increase the use of student resources by finding ways to decrease stigma surrounding the use of an on-campus food pantry, as well as altering the hours of operation to ensure that students have the access they need. Because on-campus food pantries have only recently emerged, the literature is lacking in describing the impacts that they have had on food insecurity on the college campus. Researchers have also hypothesized that increasing food and nutrition education programs, such as how to plan and prepare healthy meals on a low-cost budget, will decrease food insecurity (Payne-Sturges et al. 2017). As most of the programs being implemented to reduce food insecurity have only recently been established, future research will focus on determining the effectiveness of these programs.
Food insecurity is an issue that must be addressed on all levels. There are multiple programs that exist to aid households and individuals, yet there is a lack of resources provided to students facing food insecurity on college campuses. The research shows that food insecurity occurs at a much higher rate on college campuses than is the national average, although the contributing factors such as race, socioeconomic status, and children are similar in both populations. Food insecurity causes malnutrition and is detrimental to a person’s health and well-being, especially to college students who also see a decrease in classroom performance and GPA due to food insecurity. Considering the risk and negative impacts, colleges and universities have started to acknowledge the issue and develop programs that will support students and alleviate some of the negative impacts associated with food insecurity. It is imperative that research continue on the prevalence of food insecurity on college campuses and the programs that are developed to combat food insecurity so that effective programs can be identified and implemented nationwide.
- Balistreri, K. S. (2016). A decade of change: Measuring the extent, depth and severity of food insecurity. Journal of Family and Economic Issues, 37(3), 373-382. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10834-016-9500-9
- Bruening, M. et al. (2017). The Struggle Is Real: A Systematic Review of Food Insecurity on Postsecondary Education Campuses. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 117(11), 1767-1791. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2212267217305518
- El Zein, A. et al., (2018). Why Are Hungry College Students Not Seeking Help? Predictors of and Barriers to Using an On-Campus Food Pantry. Nutrients, 10(9), doi: doi:10.3390/nu10091163
- Holben, D.H., & Marshall, M.B. (2017). Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Food Insecurity in the United States. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 117(12), 1991-2002. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2212267217316180
- Martinez, S.M., Webb, K., Frongillo E.A., & Ritchie, L.D., (2018). Food insecurity in California’s public university system: What are the risk factors?. Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition, 13(1), 1-18, DOI: 10.1080/19320248.2017.1374901
- Payne-Sturges, D.C. et al. (2017). Student Hunger on Campus: Food Insecurity Among College Students and Implications for Academic Institutions. American Journal of Health Promotion, 32(2), 349-354. https://doi.org/10.1177/0890117117719620