More College Students Are Going Hungry

UCLA's Food Closet provides 'grab-and-go' food for students who can't afford to eat. (Photo: Michael Gordon/Shutterstock)

An article over at The Atlantic really hit home with me. It tackles the subject of food insecurity on college campuses. I was reminded of the weekends in my own college dorm when I had no food. I put myself through college and could only afford the five-day meal plan, not the seven-day meal plan. The cafeteria did not allow students to take food out of the cafeteria. Sometimes, I would sneak out a piece of fruit, but for the most part once I left the cafeteria, I was on my own for food.

I remember going to the store on weekends and purchasing a 99-cent extra-large bottle of generic soda and then going next door to the Chinese restaurant and buying a large fried rice (with no meat) and making them last for an entire weekend. I remember sneaking a piece of bread and peanut butter from one of my roommates' stashes. She had no more money or access to food than I did.

I was never really in danger of starving. I lived less from an hour from home, and I could have used the emergency gas credit card that my father had given me to buy gas and drive home. My parents would have willingly filled a couple of bags full of groceries from their cupboards for me and sent me on my way. But I was trying to prove my independence, and I chose to be hungry a lot instead of letting my parents know I didn't have enough food. I'm not even sure they knew I didn't have a seven-day plan.

A growing problem

college food gap
increasing college costs and smaller financial aid packages can affect how often a student can afford to buy food. (Photo: Freeograph/Shutterstock)

Flash forward from my college days to today, and there are lots of college students experiencing a more serious lack of food than I did. As college tuition rises sharply and middle-class families are feeling the effects of a poor economy, many students have no money for food after they pay for tuition and books. These students don't have the option I had of using an emergency credit card and going home to raid Mom and Dad's kitchen.

The latest study shows that every year more students are going hungry. The survey conducted by Temple University and the Wisconsin HOPE Lab revealed that 36 percent of students can't afford enough food. Sadly, it also showed a correlation between going hungry and earning lower grades and potentially not graduating. While the survey mostly focused on community colleges and students from lower-income families, this isn't an isolated problem.

According to The Atlantic, even students at prestigious schools like UCLA are going hungry. Senior engineering major Aballah Jadallah noticed that many of his classmates were hungry.

Many of his classmates were struggling to feed themselves, trying to get by on one meal a day — cheap but filling Taco Bell bean burritos are a particularly popular choice for the day's nourishment. He also noticed that many of the school's campus organizations regularly offered refreshments at their meetings and events, the leftovers from which were then thrown away. He found the discrepancy disturbing, so he went to the university's community programs office and requested a space to set aside leftovers for hungry students. The UCLA Food Closet was born.

Students can visit the Food Closet and get grab-and-go food that can easily be concealed in their backpacks to take to a microwave elsewhere in the building to heat up. You may be wondering why the food needs to be easily concealed. It's so students aren't embarrassed. I get that. I didn't even want my roommate to know I couldn't afford food, so I took her bread and peanut butter without asking.
At San Diego City College, a different program has been started. Once a week, students can get a bag lunch that contains some "sort of protein, fruit, a bottle of water, and a couple of snacks." It's not much, but it's better than nothing.

We're not talking about students who get back from a night of drinking and don't happen to have a stash of Cheetos to satisfy their munchies in their dorm room. We're talking about students going hungry during the school day so they can get the education needed to better their lives and their families' lives.

In North Carolina at Guilford Technical Community College, students can visit a small, but full-blown food pantry and get an entire week's worth of groceries. This service could mean the difference between a parent choosing between getting the education needed to get a better job or dropping out of school to get any job available to feed the family. The food pantry is invaluable.

How you can help

If you have a heart for college students, what can you do about this situation? I have a couple of ideas.

  • Send care packages to students you know who live on campus — peanut butter, pasta, sauce, rice, granola and nuts are all good, filling, non-perishable choices.
  • Call your local college or your alma mater and ask if there is any sort of program for students in immediate need of food. If there is, donate money or food to the program.
  • If you're a college student on a campus and you aren't feeling the effects of food insecurity, find out if your institution has one of these programs. If they do, volunteer to help out. If they don't, see if you can be instrumental in starting one.