How many hungry students are on your campus?

November 18, 2015 | SPH in the News

How many hungry students are on your campus?

Schools struggle with food insecurity

November 04, 2015

Eating ramen three meals a day is a well-worn trope about college life. But research suggests food insecurity among students is a serious problem, Steve Kolowich reports for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Food insecurity refers to skipping meals or not getting enough nutrition because of financial concerns. The first available study of food insecurity among college students was conducted by the University of Hawaii in 2007, which found that 21% of students struggled with getting enough to eat.

Study: 71% of students say lack of money affects their eating, grocery shopping habits

Later studies have found that rates food insecurity vary widely by campus. A 2011 study at Western Oregon University estimated 59% of students dealt with the issue. A new study of Arizona State University (ASU) first-year students put the rate at about 34%.

“I don’t think we really have a good understanding of how big the problem is,” says Meg Bruening, an assistant professor of nutrition at ASU.

Providing support

But recognizing the issue can be the first step toward dealing with it.

Debbie Diehm, an assistant to the VP of student affairs at Western Oregon, says the school has simplified its mechanism for proving nutritional support to at-risk students. While the previous process required filling out a form for a grant from the student emergency fund, now it gives students who reach out for help gift cards to local grocery stores.

Western Oregon also has several student-run food pantries, some of which feature food brought from the dining halls. Food pantries are also catching on at college campuses nationwide. According to the College and University Food Bank Alliance, the organization now has over 200 chapters.

Clare Cady, director of the alliance, says pantries frequently start as student-run projects but that administrators become more involved over time.

At Columbia University, a student-run startup is leveraging technology to help deal with food insecurity. Using an app called “CU meal share,” students can solicit or offer charitable donations (or “swipes”) that provide access to dining halls.

These students don’t let campus food go to waste

The school has capitalized on the trend by starting its own “emergency meal fund,” that allows students to donate meal points. Students can gain free access to dining halls through the fund six times a semester.

But broader solutions to the issue of food insecurity among college students may be more elusive. “[Food insecurity is] a hard thing for a university to acknowledge,” explains Nicholas Freudenberg, a professor of public health at Hunter College who has researched the topic.

Schools may worry about becoming overburdened by supporting their students in yet another way. “It means taking on one more task,” Freudenberg says (Kolowich, Chronicle of Higher Education, 11/3).

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