An Introduction to Food Insecurity on College Campuses Part One

This is the first in a three-part series detailing the issues and potential solutions related to food security on college campuses. Read Innovative Initiatives on College Campuses and Reexamining SNAP Policies for College Students for more insight into this subject.

Food security is defined as the ability to have reliable access to healthy and affordable food and is a major issue on college campuses. Approximately 1 in 3 college students are food insecure, and the struggle to make ends meet leaves many having to choose between utilities, housing, tuition, textbooks, and groceries. 

It is especially important to address food insecurity in college students due to its strong adverse associations with psychological health (depression, anxiety, hopelessness), physical health (nutrition status, chronic disease state), and academic performance (GPA, degree completion). Furthermore, the stigma of food insecurity can impact students’ willingness to access food programs and resources and negatively affect feelings of self-worth.

Compounding the issue, college students are an often overlooked population when examining food security in society, with many chalking up food security and financial issues in college students as more of a quintessential, rite-of-passage part of being a college student. For instance, narratives around college students surviving off of ramen noodles and joining clubs for the sole purpose of eating the provided free food attempt to normalize what is a serious issue. 

Impacts of COVID-19 on College Food Insecurity 

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a negative impact on the food security of many communities, including college students. COVID disproportionately affected people who were already food insecure and pushed many more into new food crisis. As the pandemic forced university dormitories and campus dining facilities to clos, many college students lost access to the sources of food that they relied on, resulting in higher reported rates of food insecurity, greater stress, and poorer health status.

Food insecurity on college campuses is a particularly complex problem to solve because it touches on many of the challenges facing our food system at large. These include economically, sustainable, and equitable food procurement, as well as cultural and socioeconomic concerns, such as food that is both culturally and dietarily appropriate.

Unique Circumstances on College Campuses

College students also have many distinguishing features that differentiate them from other populations with regard to food insecurity. College students generally have a poor diet and nutrition status, making food security issues even more relevant. The Spring 2023 National College Assessment III stated that only 3.7 percent of college students reported eating 5 to 6 servings of vegetables per day. College students face added vulnerability as they adapt to changes in their environment, particularly those moving from high school to college. Housing situations can contribute to food security challenges; students living off-campus are at greater risk of food insecurity than those still living with family or on campus. 

College campuses have made great strides to include more non-traditional students than in the past, but this has come with its own challenges regarding food security. On many campuses, large scale food policies have not accounted for the increased diversification of their population, which often includes greater numbers of low-income students, older students, and those with young families. Now, the landscape is much different: college costs have risen exponentially and the college population has shifted. 

Updated policies and programs are needed to reflect the current reality of food security issues on college campuses. Various innovative programs and initiatives are underway at many campuses to help student populations access healthy and affordable food. In addition to programming to address food security issues, policy change is needed to support food security on a larger, more formal scale.

Written by:

Robyn Garratt, MPH Candidate. Robyn served an internship with Community Commons and currently lives in Virginia.

Last Updated 2023

More in This Series

A photo of two students shopping for food. An orange banner reads 'College Campus Food Insecurity Part 3'.
Reexamining SNAP Policies for College Students
Story - Original
Brought to you by Community Commons
Photo of a college student staffing a food pantry. An orange banner reads 'College Campus Food Insecurity Part 2'.
Innovative Initiatives on College Campuses Addressing Food Insecurity
Story - Original
Brought to you by Community Commons

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