Food Insecurity Facing More Students as College Expenses Rise

Often, college students are accused of treating their lives on campus like a bubble; one that will pop after graduation when they have to enter the “real world.” That may be true, but plenty of students are facing incredibly challenging “real world” problems while still on campus. One of the most prevalent, and the least studied, is food insecurity.

A new study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education examined the students at Western Oregon University and found 59 percent of them were food insecure at least once during the previous year. Food insecurity by definition is, “the state of being without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food.”
You may be asking yourself how that’s possible with meal plans, food courts, and snack carts dotting most college campuses. The reality is that many students aren’t getting enough healthy food because they struggle with high costs, limited income, and fewer food and social support systems.
The researchers feel the high number of food insecure students is caused by a combination of rising college costs, changing college student demographics, and more low-income and first-generation students attending college.

“For past generations, students living on a lean budget might have just considered it part of the college experience, a transitory thing,” said Megan Patton-López, lead author of the study.
“But rising costs of education are now affecting more people. And for many of these students who are coming from low-income families and attending college for the first time, this may be a continuation of food insecurity they’ve known before. It becomes a way of life, and they don’t have as many resources to help them out.”
One of those resources rarely available to college students is food stamps. Most aren’t eligible for the program, and are already facing large amounts of debt. Most food insecure students, the study found, also work to support themselves from 18-40+ hours a week.
Because college has gotten so expensive, the money students make from work usually isn’t enough to offset the cost. The study found in the last 30 years the cost of higher education has outpaced inflation, the cost of living, and medical expenses.
Food insecurity is about a lot more than adequate meals. Students who report food insecurity are likely to face poorer health, lower grade point averages, and low income. It could also affect their cognitive and academic development.
Though more research needs to be done on the topic, the researchers feel their findings aren’t much different than what you would see at campuses across the country.
“One thing that’s clear is that colleges and universities need to be having this conversation and learning more about the issues their students may be facing,” said Daniel López-Cevallos, associate director of research at Oregon State University’s Center for Latino/a Studies and Engagement.
“There may be steps to take locally that could help, and policies that could be considered nationally. But it does appear this is a very serious issue that has not received adequate attention, and we need to explore it further.”
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