Half of college students experience food insecurity, as the rising price of college and falling household incomes contribute to a growing presence of hunger and homelessness on college campuses, writes Temple University professor Sara Goldrick-Rab in the New York Times.
Getting a college degree, and therefore path into the middle class, is a monumental struggle for low-income students who often fail to finish their education because of issues related to poverty and hunger that deeply hamper their ability to learn.
Current government safety net programs, like welfare cash-assistance and the SNAP Food stamp program, don't help these students, due to the programs' rigid work requirements. And while charitable food posits are a helpful start, campus hunger can be addressed more systemically through action on campus food pricing, flexible meal plans and loosening restrictions on government support, Goldrick-Rab says.
For disadvantaged students, transitioning to college is hard enough. Add hunger to that equation and you have yet another barrier that prevents students from competing at their highest levels of competency. Beyond impairing brain functions like memory and focus, hunger typically exists alongside the generally poorer health of low-income communities. Dr. Charles Basch, author of Healthier Students Are Better Learners, connected the achievement gap to these disparate health outcomes. The health issues impacting school-age youth, identified in his report, can often carry into adulthood or college students.
“The first thing they can do is find out how many students are dealing with this problem,” she said. “So that's a big deal because most colleges they survey their students on a lot of different things. But food security isn't one of them.”
She suggests colleges review the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s basic food insecurity questionnaire as a place to start. She posted guidance on how schools can do just that on the Wisconsin HOPE Lab website, a research laboratory she founded while a professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison to address college affordability and equity issues.
Once administrators have formed an idea of the problem’s size and scope, campus leaders can revamp campus meal policy and operations. “If they have a cafeteria or dining services, first they need to look really hard at their prices and make sure that they are offering food at reasonable and really affordable prices,” she added.
Looking at the big picture, she urges campus leaders to pressure lawmakers for changes in the work-study and food stamp programs — these programs are generally inaccessible unless an individual is working, but if work-study, or college attendance in general, were considered work, these benefits would be opened up to students.
“The way it works now in most parts of the country is if you do not have a child then you have to work 20 hours a week to get food stamps. College does not count as work,” she said. “There's so little work-study money that most people who need this can’t get it. What we need to do is count college as work. And college administrators can't make that decision by themselves but they can push for it politically.”
She’s optimistic for the future even though she expressed some reservations. “I feel like people are finally turning their attention to it. I'm afraid it's going to be a flash in the pan and they're going to turn their attention away before they've actually done the hard work of fixing it, but as long as there are homeless and hungry college students, we are not giving up.”