Hunger on a college campus – I was there once. It was June 1974. I had graduated high school and was heading off to college in the fall. I never expected to go to college. No one else in my family had ever gone. My mom finished 8th grade and my dad the 6th grade. Yet, I had a best friend whose parents were both college graduates. They expected her to go to college, so I just tagged along for the ride. We sent in the same college application to the State University of New York at Stony Brook University; she applied to private colleges as well. When I received the acceptance letter, I was stunned. My grades were good but still, this was college, and it was away from home. I lived in the Bronx and the 60-mile distance to Stony Brook on Long Island seemed a world away. And it was.
I lived on campus in a six-student suite. My suitemates were from far more affluent families than mine. I remember one student’s trip home to withdraw the quarterly interest on her investments. I had no idea what that even meant! I had never had more than a few hundred dollars in a bank account in my life. I was learning about people who lived very different realities from mine.
I did not know about student loans, but I quickly learned that they did not leave much money for “extras” beyond my books, tuition, and board. I moved off campus after the first two years, believing that my financial aid would go further with a shared rental. Even with my work-study job, I was finding it difficult to make ends meet. A friend told me about the Food Stamp Program. She said it was based on income and that I should apply. I went to the Social Security Office and applied. It was 1976. At that time, the policy required recipients to pay for a part of their benefits. I paid $26 and received $52 for the month or $13 per week. I was grateful for the help and have never forgotten that experience.
Fast forward many years later, I’m a registered dietitian and college professor teaching basic nutrition. In my course, I am constantly driving home the benefits of eating well but found it impossible to ignore the fact that everyone does not have that opportunity. I decided to share my experience with my students. My goals were to make them aware of the benefits of SNAP, dispel the myths that the program was for “lazy” people who did not want to work, make them aware of the level of hunger and food insecurity in their community and the state, and finally, give them a virtual experience of being a SNAP recipient for a week.
As the semesters evolved, so did the assignment. At first, students were required to go into the supermarket with their weekly Cost of Food budget, select their foods, design a menu that would meet at least 80% of the Dietary Reference Intakes as set by the US Dietary Guidelines for calories. I then extended that requirement to meet 80% DRI for both calories and fiber. Adding the fiber requirement insured that whole grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables would be included in the menu. All students were required to purchase items such as eggs, milk, cheese, yogurt, fruit, vegetables, bread, and at least one condiment. Plant-based dairy is an acceptable option.
One section of the assignment looks at hunger in the community. Here is where we focus on hunger on the college campus. Our college recognized the need to provide food back in 2014. Our Stock UP program opened with just a small cabinet that contained nonperishables on all our campuses. We have grown to include hot foods donated by Philabundance and local merchants. In the SNAP assignment, students research colleges and universities across the state and the nation and are surprised to learn that hunger exists in these private, exclusive institutions, as well as community colleges.
This begs the question, why are students hungry on campus? Once students move beyond the K-12 grades, meals, books, and transportation are no longer free. Many students come from families that relied on these goods and services for their children. For some students, the “freshman 15” could mean weight loss, not weight gain. We know from the results of the school breakfast programs that students that are well-fed learn better and show improved behavior. Our hunger and satiety mechanisms do not change once we passed 18. The body still needs to be fed regularly to function, our brain needs carbohydrates to do its best work and keep blood sugars regulated, and protein and fat are needed for sustained satiety. This phenomenon does not change because the student is now in college.
In an interview with Ruben Canedo, of the University of California Systemwide Basic Needs Committee (one of the largest university systems in the country) he provided a variety of reasons for the hunger we see on college campuses “The reality is that the majority of college students today are no longer… upper – or middle-class youth coming out of high school. College students are increasingly first generation, from poor to working class backgrounds with multiple jobs; from communities with high counts of immigrants; LGBTQIA, have dependents they are responsible for throughout their college experience,” (Cheyne, 2022)
How are the needs being addressed? Organizations such as Swipe Out Hunger , which serves more than 550 colleges in the US and Canada by providing meals through campus pantries and meal donation programs, to train students to advocate for federal legislation to end hunger. In a food blog entitled “Why college students face hunger” from Feeding America, issues of hunger were attributed to rising tuition costs, expensive college meal plans, availability of food, change in the student population, lack of awareness by the college. (Thoelke, 2021) Feeding America has established brick-and-mortar and mobile food banks to address the need. Low-income college students became eligible for SNAP benefits in 2021 with the Consolidate Appropriations Act for students enrolled in higher education at least half-time. While there are stipulations, extending SNAP to this population is another tool to fight hunger on college campuses.
Hunger is a multifaceted issue that requires both macro and micro solutions. Advocacy, legislation, and grass root efforts are all required. Even in a perfect world, with all these efforts in place, removing the stigma of asking for and receiving help is another obstacle to overcome. When students reflect on the project the two most common responses are that they are grateful for what they have and many want to become advocates themselves. Sometimes there are students who share their past or current experiences SNAP. The other sentiment is a better sense of the issue and empathy for those in need and an awareness of their daily struggle, even if it is only a virtual one.
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Cheyne, A. (2022, June 6). Hunger on college campuses: An interview with Ruben E. Canedo. Food Research & Action Center. Retrieved January 20, 2023, from https://frac.org/blog/hunger-on-college-campuses-interview
Thoelke, O. (2021, August 20). Why college students face hunger. Feeding America. Retrieved January 20, 2023, from https://www.feedingamerica.org/hunger-blog/why-college-students-face-hunger.
Student-led solutions to college food insecurity. Swipe Out Hunger. (2023, January 13). Retrieved January 20, 2023, from https://www.swipehunger.org/