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Three young women eat outside of the University of Maryland campus in College Park, eating food from takeout containers

College students are more likely than the average American to experience food insecurity. A literature review from THEC and TSAC identifies some of the solutions to food insecurity in higher education.

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Food insecurity continues to impact students’ ability to succeed academically, creating a challenge for college and university leaders in deciding how they can better support students.

A report from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission and the Tennessee Student Assistance Corporation, published in November, identified prior research around the causes of food insecurity among college students and different interventions that can benefit those impacted.

What’s the need: Higher costs of education—including tuition, books and supplies—can impact a student’s ability to pay for other basic expenses, including groceries.

Food Insecurity and Student Success

A May report from Trellis Research found 48 percent of students who experienced financial challenges while enrolled said they had difficulty concentrating on academics because of their finances.

Students experiencing food insecurity are less likely than their peers to excel academically and more likely to report feeling high levels of stress, according to the THEC report. Low-income, minoritized, first-generation and nontraditional students are more likely to be impacted by food insecurity and find barriers to access.

Basic needs insecurity can also affect mental and physical health of students, with food-insecure students less likely to get adequate sleep and more likely to report anxiety and emotional distress.

Students experience food insecurity at higher rates than the general population, with estimates putting students between 33 to 51 percent food insecure and all U.S. adults at 9.8 percent.

Those in college have higher risk factors for food insecurity. including:

  • Lack of resources. Many enrolled in college are also less likely to utilize Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. Eligibility requirements for students changed in 2020, increasing opportunities for college students, but many are still unfamiliar with the process of applying for and using benefits. Some institutional factors can also create greater risk of students being unable to access food. High prices for healthier food options at on-campus facilities can also make resources inaccessible for some learners. Even students with meal plans can be food insecure, with some students running out of meals before the end of the month.
  • Social stigma. Feelings of shame or self-doubt can also cause students to hide their basic needs insecurity, even from those who can help them or connect them with resources.
  • Busy schedules. One study found a positive relationship between higher food insecurity and the number of hours a student works during the week. Students who work evening shifts are also less able to access on-campus dining services during regular business hours. Students who are caretakers have competing priorities as well, with complex constraints on their schedules. All these students may choose less nutritious or otherwise inadequate meals.
  • Transportation. An institution’s geographic location, such as if a college is in a food desert (an urban location where at least 33 percent of residents live more than a mile from a place that sells nutritious food), can create challenges in finding meal options. A lack of transportation can compound this.
  • Cooking skills. Students with less experience cooking or lack of facilities to cook may also be more prone to experiencing food insecurity, with multiple studies finding students’ reported cooking skills were associated with food security status.

When students are experiencing food insecurity, they may eat less food or eat food of a lower quality (cheap or processed foods), forgo other basic needs (such as delaying rent payments), or rely on family for financial support.

Some students do utilize institution-based supports, such a food pantry or meal swipe donation programs, or receive SNAP benefits. However, these supports can have barriers to participation that reduce their total possible impact.

Practices to Address Food Insecurity

The report found eight solutions or practices that higher education leaders and practitioners have implemented to assist students who are food insecure.

  1. Food pantries. Among the most common initiatives led by colleges and universities, a free food pantry offers shelf-stable (and sometimes fresh) items to community members. Privacy and discretion are critical components of a food pantry, and institutions should collect data on pantry awareness, use and perceived barriers to pantry use.
  2. Meal swipe donation/transfer programs. A meal swipe program allows students to donate unused on-campus meals to peers in need, who apply and access the extra meals after meeting eligibility for the program. Swipe Out Hunger is a national organization with hundreds of partner institutions that leads this effort, though smaller campus efforts exist. These programs provide immediate but temporary relief.
  3. Food recovery programs. A food recovery program collects leftover food from dining or other campus events, with national organizations championing the effort, most notably the Food Recovery Network, which has student-led chapters.
  4. Community and shared gardens. Often offered in tandem with a food pantry, community gardens provide students with fresh fruits and vegetables raised on campus, often by students, giving them hands-on experience harvesting food as well. A community garden requires committed support to be sustainable, including dedicated personnel.
  5. Cooking and meal preparation demonstrations. A lack of cooking skills or nutritional literacy can impact students’ ability to consume healthy food. Cooking demonstrations or classes can teach basic skills, budgeting and how to improve nutrition.
  6. Financial literacy programming. A 2018 study found students, out of five types of support, selected “learning how to make a budget” as the third most popular support. Institutions can offer supplemental or credit-eligible courses on financial literacy and cooking and nutrition, or a workshop on the same topics.
  7. Connecting students to resources and benefits. Students should be aware of services outside the institution, including state and federal assistance programs, that can reduce basic needs insecurity. Single Stop is a national organization that partners with community colleges to connect students with staff and address needs.
  8. Financial assistance. Emergency-need grants and completion grants can help alleviate the financial burden placed on students, address immediate or long-standing needs, and benefit their academic success.  

Do you have a wellness tip that might help others encourage student success? Tell us about it.

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