The U.S. student debt crisis, which hit a high of $1.5 trillion in the first quarter of 2018, is a common topic for conversation in politics, on campuses and even at the dinner table.
Skyrocketing college costs are forcing students to take out loans that put them in debilitating debt for years to come. Students are graduating with about $37,000 in student debt on average.
What is less often discussed, however, are the financial dilemmas that students face while still in school.
In today’s world, a college degree is essential for a job in nearly any field. Students commonly have to take on a full-course schedule, so the hours they can work are very limited.
Since many students can only work a part-time job, the costs of tuition, rent and books are forcing them to often forego the very thing keeping them alive — food.
According to a 2016 study, only 18 percent of students reported being able to cover all of their college expenses by working a job.
“A surprising number of students live at or near the poverty level,” the authors wrote. “One common consequence of poverty is food insecurity — the lack of reliable access to sufficient quantities of affordable, nutritious food.”
The study showed that 48 percent of college students experience food insecurity.
Fifty-seven percent of black or African American students reported food insecurity, compared to 40 percent of non-Hispanic white students.
Fifty-six percent of first-generation students were food insecure.
Twenty-five percent of community college students qualified as having “very low” food security, and 20 percent of four-year schools students qualified as having “very low” food security.
Efforts to fight hunger
Despite the lack of public discussion, many universities and organizations are developing innovative ways to help eliminate student hunger.
The College and University Food Bank Alliance (CUFBA), co-founded by the Michigan State Student Food Bank and the Oregon State University Food Pantry, is a professional organization comprised of over 400 campus-based programs geared to alleviate hunger, food insecurity and poverty among college students.
CUFBA trains, provides resources and supports colleges that open food banks in an effort to create a model that will make these college food banks work their best for the students in need.
“Most people that come to us are already starting a food pantry, we typically help with technical assistance, answering any questions they have about setting up,” said Brandon Mathews, associate director of CUFBA. “We want to make sure it is sustainable.”
As a unique approach, the University of California Irvine started a new type of food pantry.
In 2017, the university opened FRESH Basic Needs Hub, a 2,318-square-foot space with a pantry full of canned and dried foods, fresh fruit and vegetables, refrigerated items and toiletries.
At FRESH, students can pick up groceries and learn how to prepare healthy, cheap meals.
One of the primary goals of the development is to eliminate the stigma behind students turning to a food pantry. Instead of students feeling shame, they can utilize the space to spend time with friends and feel empowered.
“Food assistance shouldn’t be stigmatized,” Andrea Gutierrez, UCI’s basic needs coordinator, said in a statement. “We want [students] to feel free to say out loud, ‘Hey, let’s meet up at FRESH’ or ‘I’m heading over to FRESH after class,’ instead of having to whisper about it.”
In 2017, a student at the University of Minnesota (UMN) started Nutritious U Food Pantry, an on-campus food pantry, to provide students in need with healthy food.
“We don’t just want to provide emergency food to students who will use it,” said Rebecca Leighton, who started Nutritious U Food Pantry when she was a graduate student at UMN. “We want to increase their access to healthy food, increase their well-being and overall increase their learning potential.”
The pantry is estimated to receive 1,300 pounds of fresh, organic vegetables from a university garden plot.
“Food insecurity is a big problem that college students are facing and at the same time, our country is facing some serious issues when it comes to chronic diseases related to obesity,” said Leighton.
“I believe all students should have reliable access not only to food, but to fresh and healthy food,” she continued. “That is why the Nutritious U Food Pantry stocks mostly fresh produce and other wholesome foods.”
When the University of Kansas (KU) learned from a 2017 study that 54 percent of its students experience food insecurity, it decided to take action.
The university developed a website to teach members of the campus community about the challenges of food insecurity and to help them identify ways to help.
Additionally, the Food Insecurity Committee at KU merged with the campus organization KU Fights Hunger to increase hunger awareness, identify resources to help the community, and improve the annual food drive and hunger summit.
Swipe Out Hunger, a program that has students donating extra meal swipes to stock campus food pantries, has gained widespread appeal.
In 2017, a student-led hunger strike at Spelman and Morehouse, two historically black universities in Atlanta, ended when the university officials at both schools agreed to bring in a chapter of Swipe Out Hunger.
The University of Kentucky (UK) is working to make sure it gets the most out of every single piece of food made in its vicinity.
UK students collect food that would otherwise have been wasted from the university’s dining facilities, nearby farms, farmers’ markets, restaurants and grocery stores, and disperse the food to those in need.
Food insecurity and hunger can greatly impede a student’s ability to focus and learn.
If a student’s family is unable to financially support them, it can be extremely hard to afford the many costs of college. Students coming from less financially-fortunate families should not have to go hungry or feel shameful about asking for help.
There have been glimpses of hope recently, as more and more universities and organizations are beginning to recognize the dilemma, but there is still much work to be done.
News & Content Manager
Jackson Schroeder is a recent graduate of Ohio University with a B.A. in Journalism from the E.W. Scripps School. He is originally from Savannah, Georgia. Jackson has covered a wide range of topics, including sustainability, technology, sports, culture, travel, and music. He plays bass and guitar, and enjoys playing and listening to live music in his free time.