“Do You Understand What It Means to be Hungry?” Food Insecurity on Campus and the Role of Higher Education Professionals

Kate K. Diamond, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities

Michael J. Stebleton, Ph.D., University of Minnesota-Twin Cities

Food insecurity has become a growing concern in higher education. As more low-income and underrepresented students seek degrees—and tuition rates and student debt levels rise— educators are starting to take action (Bruening et al., 2016; Cady, 2014; Goldrick-Rab, 2016; Morris, Smith, Davis, & Null, 2016).  As scholar-practitioners, we first became aware of this issue during a qualitative study on the college experiences of foreign-born, immigrant students attending 4-year institutions. An unexpected finding of that study was the extent to which some low-income students struggled to access food on a daily basis.  Academic advisers and other higher education professionals informed on the issue of food insecurity can play key roles in connecting students with resources and advocating for policies that would alleviate the problem.  In this essay, we will provide an overview of what is currently known about food insecurity in higher education, as well as some examples from our research on how it affects students.  We offer several recommendations for what academic advisers and other higher education professionals can do to best support students who are experiencing food insecurity.

Definition and Overview of Issue

Food insecurity is defined by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) as “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways” (USDA, 2015).  While food insecurity is a problem on a national level, evidence suggests that college students are more likely than the general population to be food insecure (Broton & Goldrick-Rab, 2016; Dubick, Mathews, & Cady, 2016).  Dubick et al. (2016) conducted a study of nearly 4,000 students from 12 community colleges and 26 four-year institutions in the United States.  According to the authors, 48% of respondents reported some level of food insecurity and 22% were highly food insecure.  A 2016 survey of 33,000 students at 70 community colleges found that two in three community college students are food insecure (Goldrick-Rab, Richardson, & Hernandez, 2017).  Silverthorn (2016) examined food insecurity at several Canadian institutions and found that 39% of student respondents reported experiencing some degree of food insecurity, with 8.3% reporting severe food insecurity.  Some students enter higher education already in poverty and experiencing food insecurity, whereas others are forced into poverty because of educational costs (McKenna, 2016).

The problem is even more pronounced for historically underserved students, including students of color, first-generation, and low-income students (Evans, 2016).  According to Dubick et al.’s (2016) study, food insecurity was more prevalent among students of color.  Based on their survey findings, 57% of Black/African American students reported food insecurity, compared to 40% of non-Hispanic white students.  Approximately 56% of first-generation students were food insecure, compared to 45% of students who had at least one parent who attended college.  The problem is clear:  Food insecurity and other symptoms of financial hardship hinder low-income students’ progress to graduation at a time when a college degree is more necessary than ever before (Fry, 2015).  Even many students who work and receive financial aid struggle to meet basic needs (Goldrick-Rab et al., 2017).  Because of the intersections of race and class in the United States, this issue disproportionately affects students of color.

A few institutions have begun to measure food insecurity among their students.  Researchers based out of City University of New York found that 39% of their students had experienced food insecurity in the past 12 months (Freudenberg et al., 2011), and a study at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa found that 45% of their students were either food insecure or at risk of being food insecure (Chaparro, Zaghloul, Holck, & Dobbs, 2009).  At the University of Minnesota, approximately 45% of students of color reported food insecurity concerns, compared to 22% of White students (Kaul, 2016).

Food insecurity is interwoven with other forms of hardship; students who struggle to find adequate food resources are also more likely to experience housing difficulties, ranging from struggling to pay rent to experiencing homelessness (Dubick et al., 2016).  Food insecurity is often linked to mental health issues (Cady, 2016).  Silverthorn (2016) found that 20% of food insecure students in the study believed that lacking access to food had affected their mental health.  Not surprisingly, food insecurity negatively affects academic performance.  Canadian researchers discovered that food insecure students were more likely to experience difficulties concentrating in class and to fail or withdraw from a class (Farahbakhsh et al., 2016).  Dubick et al.’s (2016) study noted that 32% of student respondents who were food insecure believed that their struggles with food had an impact on their educational outcomes.  The most commonly reported consequences were not being able to afford textbooks and not being able to attend class.

Student Voices

Several years ago, one of the authors (Stebleton) conducted a multi-institutional, qualitative study on foreign-born immigrant students, focusing on their experiences as undergraduates.  The researchers interviewed over 100 students at three large public universities; the institutions were selected for diversity in terms of geography (representing the Upper Midwest, Pacific Northwest, and Southwest regions of the U.S.) and in terms of mission (two were research-intensive universities and one was a regional comprehensive university).  A constructivist grounded theory approach was used to code and analyze the data (Charmaz, 2014), and the findings thus far have centered on the nature of students’ interactions with faculty and student affairs professionals (Stebleton, 2016; Stebleton & Aleixo, 2015), as well as their sense of belonging (Stebleton & Aleixo, 2016).  In the process of analyzing interview data from one of the institutions, we noticed that many immigrant college students spoke about the impact of food insecurity on their daily lived experiences.

Although the purpose of this manuscript is not to offer empirical analysis, we aim to provide several student anecdotes from the interviews to illustrate the profound impact of food insecurity on students’ lives.  The primary objective of this essay is to raise awareness and provide ideas for academic advisers and other higher education professionals so they can better support students with food insecurity needs.  Examples of our research on immigrant college students, including additional details on the study methodology, can be found elsewhere (DeAngelo, Schuster, & Stebleton, 2016; Jehangir, Stebleton, & Deenanath, 2015; Stebleton & Aleixo, 2016).  An essay that featured this immigrant college student experience as related to advising implications appeared in The Mentor in May 2016 (Stebleton, 2016).

The immigrant students we interviewed who experienced food insecurity relied heavily on food vouchers provided by the university.  Below we offer snapshots of the experiences of four undergraduate students, all of whom had emigrated from Mexico.  Juan, an undocumented student, explained how the provision of vouchers helped him to make it through college:

We also have this [student resource center] and that’s a place where undocumented students go.  Not just undocumented but anyone that needs meal vouchers.  That’s how I have been able to make it.  Also, through these two quarters without having to spend so much money on paying for restaurants because they have been providing food vouchers for me and for other undocumented students too.  It’s a big relief.

In a similar vein, Lucia discussed vouchers and other resources that a center for immigrant students provided that helped to cover her basic needs, allowing her to focus on academics:

Trying to do homework when you haven’t eaten for the past seventy hours is not going to happen.  So once I found [program for undocumented students], I found all these food resources that they provided and I think that was one key part.  I was like, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

Students were grateful for this support but at times struggled with the logistics of accessing food.  Daniela talked about how navigating the bureaucracy of a large institution impeded access to immediate relief:

They would make us wait like a whole day for them to sign [the voucher], and then I had to run back to another office and go back and forth.  And I was like this isn’t working.  I’m hungry today.  And I’m going to wait a day for me to eat a meal because you don’t have to sign this half sheet of paper right now?  …  Like, “do you understand what it means to be hungry?”

Gloria, a first-generation immigrant student, described another aspect that can complicate the process of providing relief to food insecure students – she often felt that she was not visibly different from other students, but that at times her use of food vouchers made her low-income status noticeable:

You don’t really know what class people belong to right off the bat when you look at them.  For example, sometimes people judge certain people by class because of what they wear.  What kind of shoes, what kind of bags, what kind of clothing.  You can’t really tell because everyone always wears [the institution’s] gear. … Sometimes I feel kind of insecure with [food vouchers] because almost everybody pays with a credit card …  I went to another [restaurant] and they were like “How do you work this?” And they have to call their supervisor and they had to punch in the numbers and I’m like “Oh my god.” It happened three times in the same restaurant on different occasions.  I’m like, “come on, you have to know what this is.”

The experiences of these students align with what we know from the literature on the experiences of many first-generation and low-income students (Jehangir, 2010; Stebleton, Soria, & Huesman, 2014).  Accessing resources and services in decentralized institutions can be a complex and frustrating experience, especially for students who are unfamiliar with the culture of higher education (Nuñez et al., 2013).  When students are referred to multiple points of service for different needs, they may be turned off from utilizing resources available to them (Engle & O’Brien, 2007; Goldrick-Rab, Broton, & Eisenberg, 2015).  Moreover, low-income students, especially those who attended under-resourced high schools, are less likely to feel comfortable interacting with institutional authority figures, who may serve as gatekeepers to sources of relief for food insecure students (Jack, 2016).

Another barrier involves students’ feelings of embarrassment or shame in using certain resources such as food vouchers.  It is important to remember that class matters—and perceptions of class influence students’ college experiences both directly and indirectly (Armstrong & Hamilton, 2013; Soria, 2015; Soria & Stebleton, 2013).  These dynamics can reduce student use of and demand for certain types of support, making the issue of food insecurity less visible on campuses (Cady, 2016).  Duke-Benfield and Saunders (2016) suggested several strategies that staff can use to reduce stigma, including sharing personal stories, framing benefits as another form of financial aid, and stressing to students that “there’s a time to give and a time to receive” (p. 26). When students suffer from hunger, it is difficult to imagine how they can concentrate on academics or other aspects of the college experience (Evans, 2016).   As more and more students sacrifice their well-being in order to gain the college degree necessary for securing their future, institutions have a responsibility to provide relief such as food vouchers, to make resources easy to access, and to reduce the stigma of using them (Goldrick-Rab, 2016).

What Academic Advisers and Higher Education Professionals Can Do

As some of the quotes above demonstrate, accessing food resources and other services for low-income students is not a straightforward process.  It often requires that students possess the time and knowledge necessary for navigating complex networks of centers and services (Stebleton, 2016; Yosso, 2005).  If advisers are knowledgeable about available resources for students, they can support students in navigating the different points of service at the institution.  As awareness of this issue has grown, institutions have increased efforts to provide support to food insecure students (Twill, Bergdahl, & Fensler, 2016).  Many colleges and universities have instituted food banks on campus and have made available food vouchers or emergency funds for students in need (Cady, 2014).  At our own institution at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, several pilots for a new ongoing food bank have been extremely popular and successful (Rademacher, 2017).

Dubick et al. (2016) noted other recommendations for higher education institutions.  Among these ideas included food recovery programs, such as Campus Kitchen and the Food Recovery Network.  Both of these initiatives aim to gather unused food on campus and re-use or re-purpose the food for those that may benefit.  At Cal State Fresno, the Catered Cupboard program and app will notify students when they have left over food from a catered event on campus (Catered Cupboard, 2016).  Student-led Swipe Out Hunger chapters (Swipe Out Hunger, 2016) have sprung up at many campuses, creating programs where students can donate unused meal points from their meal plans to food insecure students (Dubick et al., 2016; Pappano, 2016).

Other examples come from the California State University system.  Humboldt State University implemented the Oh Snap! Food program, and Chico participates in a number of initiatives including a Pack the Pantry food drive and a peer support program titled, Students Helping Out Peers (SHOP) (Students Helping Out Peers, 2016).  Many California colleges and universities have launched initiatives aimed at helping eligible students apply for CalFresh, which is California’s SNAP, or food stamp, program.  Many students are unaware that they meet the criteria to receive benefits (Guzman-Lopez, 2016).  As part of the CalFresh program, students can use EBTs (electronic benefit transfers) at farmers’ markets and other outlets (i.e., money is put on food stamp cards and used like a credit card).  Interested readers may want to review the extensive efforts led by the Wisconsin HOPE Lab Real College (Goldrick-Rab, 2016; Wisconsin Hope Lab, 2016).

Finally, an ongoing program thrives at Inver Hills Community College (IHCC) and Metropolitan State University.  Realizing a growing food insecurity issue on campus and in the community, several faculty members started a community garden on campus at IHCC. Students enrolled in psychology and English composition courses at IHCC engage in service hours in the community garden.  One English faculty member, Mary Thompson, encourages students to write source-based position essay assignments based on their service experiences around food issues.  The Inver Hills and Metropolitan State University collaboration continues to get stronger.  In past years, they have donated over 1,000 pounds of food to local charities and food banks (Inver Hills News, 2016).

Students may be unaware that support exists, or that there are various options depending on their specific context.  From this perspective, academic advisers can serve as valuable information sources for food insecure students, pointing students to resources on campus or in the community.  More importantly, advisers often assume direct service responsibilities and interactions with students and are well-placed to notice changes with students, or be aware of concerns affecting students’ lives.

Students may not always feel comfortable disclosing their experiences of food insecurity or other symptoms of financial hardship (Wisconsin Hope Lab, 2014).  Advisers should think about ways of communicating with students around these issues that reduce stigma and avoid singling out individuals.  For example, information about food resources and other services could be part of a standard packet that advisers share with all of their students.  Academic advisers can clarify to students that part of their role is to be knowledgeable of services and resources on campus and to connect students based on their specific needs.  If data are available on the prevalence of food insecurity at the institution, advisers can share that information with students as a way of helping them to see that their struggle to access food is actually a common student experience.

Additionally, academic advisers would be wise to realize that other barriers negatively influence food insecurity concerns.  For example, students who experience food insecurity may also possess challenges such as homelessness and mental health issues (Goldrick-Rab et al, 2017).  Becoming familiar with the mental health services (e.g., hours of service, location, types of services provided), as well as other support structures, would serve advisers and their students well in these situations.  A one-page list of campus and community-based resources that includes phone numbers and web links can serve as a valuable resource for students.

Academic advisers can also advocate for more to be accomplished at an institutional level. Some ideas include:

  • If food insecurity data is not already collected and publicized to the university community, advisers can encourage institutional leaders to add food insecurity questions to an existing student survey.
  • Advisers can advocate for their institution to join national organizations focused on addressing food insecurity and other issues faced by low-income students.  For example, the College and University Food Bank Alliance provides member institutions with support for running campus food banks (Dubick et al., 2016).
  • Some institutions (including Oregon State University and Humboldt State University) have implemented procedures in which SNAP credits are accepted in campus stores (Dubick et al., 2016).  Advisers can lead similar initiatives on their respective campuses.
  • Advisers can start or join initiatives at their institution aimed at reducing costs for students (e.g., lowering textbook costs) or providing more need-based financial aid.
  • If there is a food bank, community garden, or shelf on campus, academic advisers can contribute directly or indirectly to the cause (e.g., volunteer time, donate items).  Higher education professionals at Inver Hills Community College regularly participate in maintaining the community garden on campus.
  • Some institutions have emergency funds for students in need.  Advisers can donate money to this cause and become aware of procedures needed for students to secure these important funds.

Conclusion:  A Growing Issue…

Clearly, concerns related to food insecurity continues to be a timely and highly relevant issue influencing higher education.  Higher education professionals, especially academic advisers, serve as vital resources to students that confront food insecurity.  Given the current socio-political situation in the United States and the proposed budget cuts by the new administration, this situation will likely get worse before it gets better (Kreighbaum, 2017).  For example, in President Trump’s proposed budget as of March 2017, TRIO would receive a 10% cut from current funding, while GEAR UP program’s annual budget would be lowered by a third.  The work-study program could also be at risk in the future (Seltzer, 2017). These changes, if enacted, would have a draconian impact on many students, especially those who have been historically underserved.

Low-income and first-generation students are increasingly pursuing higher education. Paying for tuition and other educational costs leaves many without adequate access to food.  While food insecurity often goes unnoticed on campus, increased scholarly and practitioner attention to the issue has revealed the extent of the problem.  It is time for academic advisers and other higher education professionals to inform and advocate on behalf of students in need.  When equipped with awareness of the issue and the resources available to address it, academic advisers and other higher education leaders can play a crucial role in advocating for students as well as connecting them with resources that may make it possible for food insecure students to persist towards degree completion.  Our students are relying on us.


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About the Author(s)

Michael J. Stebleton, Ph.D., University of Minnesota-Twin Cities

Michael J. Stebleton, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Higher Education at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development. He can be reached at steb0004@umn.edu.

Kate K. Diamond, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities

Kate K. Diamond is a Ph.D. Candidate in Higher Education at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development. She can be reached at koehl220@umn.edu.

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