The Slatest

Hunger on College Campus Has Some Students Relying on Food Pantries and Donated Meals

Students walking through UCLA's campus
University of California Los Angeles is one of several campuses where students can donate unused meal credits through the nonprofit Swipe Out Hunger.
REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

The cliché of college students subsisting on ramen noodles may hit a little closer to home than many people realize. This fall, many students will be stressing over where their next meal will come from.

Food insecurity isn’t new among students at schools ranging from community colleges to four-year universities, but it’s gaining more attention. In a 2017 study that surveyed 43,000 students, the Wisconsin Hope Lab found that 36 percent of university students and 42 percent of community college students were affected by food insecurity, which it defines as “the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods, or the ability to acquire such foods in a socially acceptable manner.”

Sara Goldrick-Rab, founder of the Wisconsin Hope Lab, said the problem has been worsened by a misunderstanding of how college students really live. “For the longest time, people assumed that college students were basically living on campus with all of their needs taken care of,” she told Slate. “And that actually hasn’t been true for a long time, especially at community colleges.”

Students go hungry even in spite of funds from financial aid and jobs. As tuition and fees rise, financial aid hasn’t kept up. More than 40 percent of full-time undergrads are working in addition to going to school, according to data released last year by the National Center for Education Statistics. But their low incomes are not always enough to put food on the table.

“Most of the students, we find, are working and receiving financial aid, but still struggling with food insecurity,” Katherine Broton, an assistant professor at the University of Iowa, told Kaiser Health News.

Dining on campus can carry a hefty price tag. Some meal plans cost more than $6,000 for one academic year. “Board” rates on college campuses, a category of expenses that includes meal plans, averaged $4,400 at four-year public universities and $5,600 at four-year private universities, according to 2016 data from the U.S. Department of Education.

Hundreds of schools have turned to food pantries as a solution. There are more than 300 food pantries on college campuses, according to Clare Cady of the College and University Food Bank Alliance*. CUFBA began in 2011 with just 15 campuses registered. It now has 641.

Some schools have partnered with organizations like Swipe Out Hunger, a nonprofit that spun out of UCLA in 2009 extended to 46 schools. The group allows students to donate unused credits from their meal plans to students who need them. The mission, according to founder Rachel Sumekh, is to end hunger on college campuses, along with the narrative that student hunger isn’t a real issue.

“We have to teach people in our community … that narrative is incredibly broken,” Sumekh told Slate. “The situation today is much harder. You can’t make it on a part-time job or even a full-time job anymore. You still are struggling.”

Some students have access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, a federal program that provides monthly supplements, also known as food stamps, to low-income people. Ruben Canedo of the University of California, Berkeley, told Kaiser Health News the school plans to focus on enrolling eligible students in CalFresh, the California SNAP program*. But SNAP also has its limitations. Federal rules stipulate that recipients without dependents must work at least 20 hours a week to qualify for these benefits.

“We are going to have to figure out how to create a system of higher education that’s affordable for the massive number of people who want to go,” Goldrick-Rab told Slate. “When a massive number of people were suddenly going to go to elementary school and high school, we decided that they need to eat and so we created a free breakfast program and free lunch. We haven’t done that with college.”

Correction, July 31, 2018: This post originally conflated food banks with food pantries and misidentified Canedo as affiliated with UCLA.