More than half of students at U.S. community colleges say they're hungry

college student studying
CC BY 2.0 Leon Fishman

Food insecurity is a very real problem for many Americans, but who knew that it affected so many college students, too?

Food banks are not something you’d normally expect to find on college campuses in the United States, but they are springing up across the country at a surprising rate. Their presence challenges the old stereotype of college years being a time of food excesses, with late-night pizza runs, all-you-can-eat cafeterias, and the notorious “Freshman 15.”

The true situation is much more dire, according to a report published in December 2015. After surveying 4,000 students attending ten community colleges, researchers found that more than half of all community college students struggle with food insecurity, although the problem exists at four-year institutions, too, for an estimated 20 percent of students.

Food insecurity is defined as “the lack of reliable access to sufficient quantities of affordable, nutritious food.”

Many of these hungry students are not whom you’d expect them to be. Fifty-six percent of students in the study were employed, with 38 percent working more than 20 hours a week. More than half received a federal study grant and 18 percent were recipients of private scholarships. Despite this, they still didn’t have enough money for food.

What’s going on? The New York Times published an op-ed by one of the report's authors:

“Students have to pay for books and supplies, transportation, health care and clothes, lodging and food, in addition to tuition and fees. After grants and scholarships are applied to reduce those costs, students who are more likely to qualify for maximum support because their parents earn less than $30,000 a year, still face an average out-of-pocket price of more than $8,000. Even with student loans, they fall short.”

The Atlantic covered this topic last January, pointing out that the majority of college students no longer fits the historic mold of being 18 to 25, childless, and attending a four-year institution. Life circumstances, such as covering daycare costs, make it even harder to make ends meet:

“In fact, most students are older, low income, raising a family, or attending a community college. ‘The nontraditional student is the new normal.’”

CNN reports that colleges are responding to this need by increasing the number of food banks on campus:

“While there's no official count, membership in the College and University Food Bank Alliance has quadrupled in the past two years. It currently has 398 members.”

Montclair State is one such school with an active food bank that provides students with canned foods, milk, cereal, bread, and toiletries, among other things. One of the food bank’s organizers, Fatima de Carvalho, told CNN that the need is not new, but “students are being more vocal about it.”

Schools and students are working together to solve the problem, aware that hunger prevents students from being able to focus properly in class, which in turn makes it harder to graduate and go on to eventually successful careers. With many support programs unavailable to college students, such as the lunch programs they may have used as elementary and high school students, and many not meeting the work requirements for SNAP eligibility, food banks in schools are the most logical, if unfortunate, solution.

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