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Blair Horner: Hunger Hits Colleges

College students are not the ones that we think of when identifying people who are hungry in America.  Yet, as the income gap has grown, there are an incredible number of college students who go hungry.

Last week, a national report documented just how serious the problem has become.

Four campus-based organizations – the College and University Food Bank Alliance, the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness, the Student Government Resource Center, and the Student Public Interest Research Groups – surveyed college students on food insecurity in 12 states. 

Food insecurity – the lack of reliable access to sufficient quantities of affordable, nutritious food – is common at colleges and universities across the country, potentially undermining the educational success of untold thousands of students.

In their report, the groups surveyed almost 3,800 students at 34 community and 4-year colleges across 12 states – the broadest sample to date.  The report, Hunger on Campus: The Challenge of Food Insecurity for College Students, found that over 20 percent of those surveyed had the very lowest levels of food insecurity, and 13 percent of students at community colleges were homeless.

The report also found that consistent with prior studies, nearly half of those surveyed reported food insecurity in the previous month, including 22 percent with very low levels of food security that qualify them as hungry.

The report also found that students experiencing food insecurity often also suffer from housing insecurity, such as difficulty paying the rent, mortgage, or utility bills.  Nearly two-thirds of food insecure students reported experiencing some type of housing insecurity. Fifteen percent of food insecure students reported experiencing some form of homelessness – the most extreme form of housing insecurity – in the past 12 months.

Not surprisingly, the impacts of food or housing insecurity make it harder for students to perform in college.  Of the food insecure students in the study, over 30 percent believed that hunger or housing problems had an impact on their education. These students reported a range of consequences: Over half reported that these problems caused them to not buy a required textbook or missing a class; and twenty-five percent reported dropping a class.

Remarkably, these problems existed for students who were employed, participated in a campus meal program or received other forms of financial aid.  Over half of food insecure students reported having a paying job. Of those employed students, nearly 2 in 5 worked 20 hours or more per week.  Being enrolled in a meal plan with a campus dining hall does not eliminate the threat of food insecurity. Among the respondents from four-year colleges, over 40 percent of meal plan enrollees still experienced food insecurity.

And financial aid programs appear to be insufficient for college students in need.  According to the report, three in four food insecure students received some form of financial aid. More than half (52 percent) received Pell Grants and nearly 40 percent took out student loans during the current academic year.

What should be done?

A good place to start is for policymakers to examine the problems of hunger and homelessness among college students.  There is a real need to address these concerns through creative measures, such as making it easier for students to access financial aid, food programs, and offering housing and meals to needy students.

No person should ever have to worry about how they’re going to get their next meal. Unfortunately, that situation is the reality for far too many of today’s students.  

Blair Horner is the Legislative Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

 The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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