Food insecurity on campus

College kids subsisting on ramen noodles may be a stereotype, but students struggling to afford food is not only a fact, it’s a growing concern on campuses.

sad student blackboard

When the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire opened Campus Harvest in September, the student food pantry had three dorm refrigerators full of food and seven shelves stocked with non-perishable goods.

Julie Carr, administrative supervisor for Campus Harvest and executive assistant to the university’s vice chancellor of Student Affairs, says she wasn’t sure what to expect. “My biggest surprise was we had somebody waiting outside the door,” Carr says. “I didn’t think anyone would be there.”

Since then, the food pantry has seen a steady stream of 30 to 40 students each week. “We have tons of food [in the U.S.], and the idea that there are people out there that can’t afford food or are going hungry is just crazy to me,” Carr says.

Just as crazy was what Kimera Way, president of the UW-Eau Claire Foundation and executive director of University Advancement, heard a few months later. An international student showed up at the Dean of Students office nearly starving.

“She hadn’t eaten for two or three days because she didn’t have any money,” Way says. “She was really in a distressed situation, and they walked her right down to Campus Harvest and got her some food.”

Unfortunately, what is happening at UW-Eau Claire isn’t an isolated situation.

According to Feeding America, a non-profit that serves a network of 200 food banks in the U.S. that distribute food to approximately 60,000 “feeding organizations,”one in seven Americans—46.5 million people—turn to the organization for food assistance. What is more staggering is that 4.6 million—1 in 10 adults—is a student, according to the organization’s “Hunger in America 2014” report.

“This isn’t something we’ve ever tracked before,” says Ross Fraser, the director of media relations for Feeding America, which produces the report every four years. “There isn’t a lot of hard data on this issue.”

While Fraser can’t say scientifically whether there are more college students now who are hungry than there were 10 years ago, he points to the economic crash of 2008 as a catalyst for the overall need skyrocketing from 34 to 38 million Americans who are food insecure to around 48 to 50 million. “You won’t find a food bank in the country that says the need for its services has diminished,” Fraser says.

A growing issue

Although there is an increasing need across the U.S. to help college students who are struggling with food insecurity, Dawn Aubrey, president-elect of the National Association of College and University Food Services (NACUFS), says the problem must be addressed locally by each institution.

“NACUFS does recognize that food insecurity is a growing issue,” Aubrey says. “It’s one that is being discussed on a national level. However, the way that it is addressed is really within the community, and really at the local level for each of the respective colleges and universities.”

At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where Aubrey is the associate director of housing for dining services, the foodservice department uses Zero Percent, a platform developed by an Illini graduate, which permits restaurants and foodservice operators to list their leftover perishable food via a website or an app that sends alerts to food pantries about what’s available.

At the end of each semester, Aubrey says, dining services also donates unused ingredients such as eggs, deli ham and shredded cheese to the Eastern Illinois Food Bank. 

A student-run organization called Illini Fighting Hunger sponsors a number of campus events. As part of a campus-wide effort, more than 900 volunteers last April formed multiple assembly lines at the university’s football stadium and packaged 147,000 “dry shelf-stable” meals for the Eastern Illinois Foodbank. Aubrey says about 100 foodservice staff members participated in the event and  university dining assisted with the procurement, storage, set-up and transportation of the food items.

“The [organization] started as a result of seeing the need and wanting to address hunger in the community,” says Aubrey about the group, which was founded in 2012 and has prepared more than a half million meals since its inception. “It was a direct response from learning that donations from local companies and businesses were declining due to the downturn in the economy.”

Other colleges across the U.S. are also starting programs to help stymie food insecurity issues.

Last September, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte opened the Niner Food Pantry to help off-campus students. In October, after 53 percent of 226 students reported  they were experiencing some level of food insecurity, the University of Utah opened Feed U Pantry, an on-campus food bank for students that is a partnership between the university’s Center for Student Wellness, Campus Store and the Utah Food Bank. In November, Eastern Kentucky University opened the Colonel’s Cupboard, a service of Student Life that provides emergency food boxes—approximately nine “well-balanced meals”—to currently enrolled part-time or full-time students.

“It is reflecting our larger problems as a country,” says Nicholas Freudenberg, a professor of public health at City University of New York (CUNY) in New York City, who authored a survey published in 2011 that found 39 percent of CUNY students had experienced food insecurity in the prior 12 months and 45 percent worried about being able to afford food. “Food is available everywhere, but it’s the price. Non-healthy food is cheaper and more available than healthy food, especially when you don’t have enough money for food.”

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