Hunger. The mention of the word conjures up images in the collective minds of society. Everyone has various mental images of hunger, depending upon their perspectives. Perhaps some think of starving children living in a dusty, desolate Sub-Saharan village, stricken by drought and famine. Others may think of urban inner-cities, haunted by the heavy atmosphere of poverty, producing a hungry and homeless population. Thinking of hunger probably does not elicit thoughts of college students strolling through a tree-lined quad or opening the creaky doors of an ivy-walled library, stepping into the distinctive, musty scent of knowledge that can only be produced by books. Yet, here the nation stands, surrounded by the advancements of the 21st Century, and plunging deeper into a crisis of hunger on college and university campuses. Hunger? Hunger seems to be a concept incongruent with mental images of healthy, happy college students. Unfortunately, that mental image of a carefree college student remains elusive, as hunger shapes reality for too many postsecondary students today.
The United States Department of Agriculture (2017) defines food insecurity as the economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food. Consequently, food insecurity produces the physiological condition of hunger (“USDA Economic Research Service,” 2017). Across the nation, college students bear food insecurity at rates higher than the general population (Goldrick-Rab, Richardson, Schneider, Hernandez, & Cady, 2018). When students face what seems like an endless list of expenses, including food, tuition, fees, books, housing, transportation, and possibly childcare and medication, food falls toward the bottom of the list and becomes a luxury more than a necessity. However, the reality remains that the physiological needs satisfied by food allows students to advance to the self-actualization needs satisfied through higher education (Maslow, 1943). Helping college students break out of the barriers of physiological needs caused by food insecurity will benefit all of society, not only the directly impacted students and their immediate families.
Since 2008, food insecurity quietly and steadily established a firm grip on college campuses throughout America, with broad and deep effects impacting the marginalized at disproportionately higher rates than the mainstream majority population. When the tentacles of hunger harm specific demographic populations, the result produces social justice and human rights issues, and not exclusively a higher education issue (Jason, Beasley, & Hunter, 2015). Students at community colleges report higher rates of food insecurity than students at 4-year colleges and universities. Food insecurity affects Black, Native American, and Hispanic populations, as well as women (particularly single mothers), students with disabilities, and those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer, at higher rates than the population in general. First-generation students also report higher rates of food insecurity than students who had at least one parent attend college (Goldrick-Rab et al., 2018). These marginalized students become even more marginalized, leading them down a lonely road of isolation and shame.
A recent study revealed equal levels of academic effort across all student populations, whether they experience food insecurity or not; however, academic success declines for food insecure students. Additionally, many food insecure students find themselves unable to purchase required textbooks, skipping classes, dropping classes, earning lower grade point averages (GPAs), and frequently withdrawing from their postsecondary institution altogether (Dubick, Mathews, & Cady, 2016). In addition to lower academic outcomes, the detrimental effects of food insecurity become apparent in the physical, mental, emotional and social health of students. Stress, depression, and anxiety occur at rates three times higher among food insecure versus food secure students. As well, greater alcohol consumption, poor nutrition, fatigue, and difficulty concentrating negatively impact students in and out of the classroom (Dubick et al., 2016).
Campus-level support of food insecure students includes food pantries, food recovery and reuse programs, and donations of unused meal plan points or account balances. Ten years ago, less than 10 food pantries existed on campuses across the country; by 2016, that number grew to more than 350. According to the College and University Food Bank Alliance (CUFBA) (2018), over 600 colleges and universities provide on-campus food pantries as of April, 2018 (“Food Pantry Members,” 2018). Faculty, staff, and students forge partnerships to fortify support services for food insecure students on individual campuses. Additionally, some colleges and universities adopt financial policies, including short-term, interest-free loans for students anticipating financial aid who have not yet received the payment. Adjustments in tuition and fee due dates, book loan programs, and social benefits programs provide financial relief for food insecure students (Dubick et al., 2016). Resources located through this food insecurity site provide additional information.
This critical social, cultural, and educational crisis presents a complex issue requiring complex solutions. Too many causes of food insecurity produce too many effects for college students across the nation. Higher education professionals and society cannot only open campus food pantries, pat each other on their communal backs, and then move on. The issue of hunger and food insecurity requires immediate, long-term, and systemic attention.
To whom much is given, much is required. Rooted in Scripture and often-quoted, this mandate remains relevant and applicable to solving this social justice issue of food insecurity and campus hunger. Strong leaders equipped with empathy, compassion, and vision need to step forward to help college students break out of the cycle and side effects of food insecurity. Strong leaders armed with the skill and insight to tackle this issue must join forces to ensure accessibility for students who desire a greater quality of life through postsecondary education.
Gina Shipley, M.Ed.
Doctoral Student, Doctorate in Leadership Program, Hardin-Simmons University
Instructor, Curriculum & Instruction, Angelo State University
College and University Food Bank Alliance Membership. (2018). Retrieved from https://sites.temple.edu/cufba/members/
Definitions of food security. (2017). Retrieved from https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/food-nutrition-assistance/food-security-in-the-us/definitions-of-food-security/
Dubick, J., Mathews, B., & Cady, C. (2016). Hunger on campus: The challenge of food insecurity for college students. University of Wisconsin-Madison: Author.
Goldrick-Rab, S., Richardson, J., Schneider, J., Hernandez, A., & Cady, C. (2018). Still hungry and homeless in college. Madison, WI: Wisconsin HOPE Lab.
Jason, L. A., Beasley, C. R., & Hunter, B. A. (2015). Advocacy and social justice. In Community psychology: Foundations for practice (pp. 262-288). San Francisco, CA: SAGE Publications.
Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370-396.