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The College Students Who Are Starving in Silence

Colleges are beginning to address food insecurity on campus, but byzantine government regulations and impossible criteria are making it difficult for hungry students to get ahead.
Students go about their business at the University of California–Los Angeles.

Students go about their business at the University of California–Los Angeles.

The image of the hungry college student is a familiar one, with late-night ramen meals nearly as ubiquitous as the infamous all-nighter study session. But that scene is a comparatively benign one: Many of these students are unaware they have classmates who regularly skip meals because they lack the funds to buy food.

The 2017 "Hungry and Homeless in College" report from the Wisconsin HOPE Lab indicates that up to two-thirds of college students aren't eating enough food. Though schools are making college accessible to first-generation and lower-income students, scholarships are not enough. While there have been no widespread studies on the effects of food insecurity at the college level, a number of smaller studies can help paint a picture of the effects of food insecurity: among them, higher likelihood to experience stress, lower grade point averages, and an almost 10 percent reduction in the likelihood of obtaining their degree.

Justice Butler is in her second stint as a student, now at Houston Community College. She attended college years ago while also juggling a full-time job. Eventually, Butler lost her job, and she soon found herself homeless, and hungry. At one point, Butler had lost 20 pounds living on the street. "Not being able to eat correctly made it a struggle. I felt tired and drained," she says. "It was hard to focus and study, but I had help from my homeless friends who encouraged me and helped me study."

Her life changed when a friend encouraged her to go back to school, but it wasn't easy. She has since regained most of her weight, but she still doesn't eat much. "I think my stomach shrunk," she says. "The most important time [to eat] is mornings, and then a snack, I manage so that it stretches. I learned to eat more healthy, things like salads that fill me up."

Sometimes she goes to the local Chinese restaurant and fills up at the buffet. She has learned to watch for campus events offering free food and shares this information with other homeless or hungry students. "Now that I've overcome that struggle, it has impacted me to make sure no other student goes through that," Butler says.


Possibly the biggest barrier for these students is simply that no one knows they are hungry. They are invisible, much like the homeless people in large cities who commuters step over and around each day. Everyone in college talks about being poor and hungry, yet few admit to not having eaten since yesterday.

"Not being able to eat correctly made it a struggle," Butler says. "I felt tired and drained."

It's this lack of visibility that's of particular concern to Sara Goldrick-Rab, founder of the HOPE Lab. She notes that many of these students are probably not going to finish their degrees, yet one-third have student loans. They are likely to drop out and will be struggling financially to survive. "[Studies show] that food and housing insecurity is hindering academic progress," Goldrick-Rab says. "There is plenty of evidence of effort among these students; they have grit coming out of their ears. But unlike in K-12 education, we don't match their commitment with programs to ensure they get to eat and sleep."

Finally, schools are starting to pay more mind to the issue. Clare Cady, director of the College and University Food Bank Alliance, notes that schools are now looking at hunger problems on their own campuses, and many are establishing food pantries in response. While Cady calls this "an excellent intervention," she notes that for a problem of this scope, "more is needed."

While statistics show that the average income with an associate's degree is $6,240 more than a high school diploma, and $23,868 more with a bachelor's degree, the challenge to earn a degree is, for some, insurmountable. Goldrick-Rab worries the future of higher education may be at stake; there is a sense, she says, that "the government told us it would do these things and they are reneging." In the long term, are parents going to send their children to college? "We are hearing these discussions. Is college worth it? Imagine if in the 20th century we said that high school wasn't important. We made it free because we had to," she says.

Cady points out the personal effects hunger has on these students: "We know that it's impacting grade point average at the college level. We know that hunger is linked to more stressful situations, which can make them more susceptible to anxiety and depression," she says. "All of these things compound and can make it much more challenging for a student to persist and succeed. It certainly makes it hard for them to flourish while they're working toward their degree."

Goldrick-Rab also stresses the importance of healthy food. And indeed some campuses are recognizing the challenges of eating healthily on a budget and have responded by including fresh produce as an option at food pantries, and setting up community kitchens where students can prepare meals. But in many cases, students often are so busy studying and working to pay for expenses that they don't have time to plan, shop for, and prepare healthy meals. Some also have the added challenge of living without a well-equipped kitchen, making instant or microwaved meals their only option.

"Though meal plans go along with housing, that doesn't mean that all the kids living on campus are being fed," Goldrick-Rab says. "Many plans involve set dining hours. What if you are at work? The more flexible plans generally cost more and are out of the budget of these students."

Antonio Sandoval, Director of the University of California–Los Angeles' Community Programs Office, echoes Goldrick-Rab's concerns. "We've had plenty of students come by our department mentioning that they must choose between academic materials and a meal," he says. "Food insecurity also affects a student's confidence and esteem and these can have long-term effects on how a student performs in and out of the classroom."

Hunger also carries a stigma. "There's definitely a stigma around students who experience food/basic needs security," Sandoval says. "We see that students are sometimes ashamed to grab food from our food closet. The stigma and shame can keep students from seeking the resources and taking advantage of the opportunities to not be hungry."

While food insecurity as a whole is a significant problem in the United States (according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, up to one in eight households have some level of food insecurity), a University of California study indicates that, for 57 percent of these students, hunger is a relatively new phenomenon. "There are programs available to help, but many do not apply to college students," Goldrick-Rab adds. "Without a child, to receive SNAP benefits, you are required to work 20 hours on top of college." Food prices in college towns also tend to be higher. "It used to be totally possible working a modest number of hours to work your way through college. Now it is impossible," she says.

Sara Goldrick-Rab.

Sara Goldrick-Rab.

Butler echoes this. "Before, I was able to get food stamps," she says. "Once you become a student, they take food stamps away. It was a catch-22."

Robert Dike, a senior at Oregon State University, learned firsthand how challenging SNAP rules can be. "Because I was homeless and a student, I had to prove that I worked 20 hours a week. I did that and when they assessed my income, they said, since I wasn't paying rent, I was only entitled to $15 a month. The hurdles seem like they are preventing fraud, but people like myself fall into this gap. I'm trying to avoid being homeless, but I'm very overwhelmed. The system is not helping me bridge that gap, but pushing me into a hole."

After speaking to college officials, Dike was eventually awarded a work study package, which made life a bit easier. "With work study, I only have to prove I'm working one hour a month to qualify for SNAP," he says.

Dike didn't always have this struggle. This marks his second degree and since he had other college credits going in to Oregon State, he was able to complete this bachelor's in two years. "I struggled to find work for quite a while. I got divorced, lost my job, a family member, and my cat all within three months," he says. "I ended up being homeless. I had already been accepted to Oregon State and didn't want to give up on that. My tuition was covered by student loans."

Homeless for much of this time, he lived in his van while his mail went to his sister's address in Portland, an hour's drive away. Three months ago he lost SNAP benefits when he neglected to respond to a notice quickly enough. (He has since been re-approved but does not yet know how much the benefit will be.) To get by, he utilizes the campus food pantry and programs such as MealBucks, a pre-loaded card for campus dining facilities. He earns some money between his work study and a number of other occasional jobs; he estimates he made about $4,000 last year.

Three months ago he saved and borrowed enough to rent a studio apartment. "The day-to-day can be very challenging," he says. "Not having four walls makes it difficult to make nutritious food that doesn't need to be refrigerated. Now that I have a kitchen, it has become a lot nicer to use the pantry. Without a kitchen you can't prepare stuff like dry rice. And people don't like it when you bust out a camping stove in the park."

Cady calls Oregon State's Human Services Resource Center a "model program." A part of the Student Life Office, it offers not only a food pantry but also assistance in applying for SNAP, a website of recipes, cooking classes, resources to find free food on campus, and opportunities to participate in agricultural programs in exchange for food.


California may be the national leader in alleviating the student-hunger problem. The state's public colleges have been increasingly proactive in identifying these students and implementing programs for long-term success.

A 2015 study conducted by California State University found the problem of food insecurity was greater and larger in scope than previously thought. Though a number of resources (such as food pantries) were in place, there were still institutional barriers to students' success and the sense of isolation felt by these students interfered with their potential. As a result of the study, the school designated staff to be "single points of contact" to provide personal support to students experiencing food and housing insecurity and help them find and obtain available services. Administrators have also made a commitment to make obtaining needs easier by partnering financial aid officers with student affairs staff and have also acknowledged the students' desire to have a shared space to connect with others and share resources.

"We've had plenty of students come by our department mentioning that they must choose between academic materials and a meal."

Though it varies by campus, the school provides direct food distribution through food pantries, assistance in enrolling students in state programs, vouchers to use at the campus farmer's market, complimentary dining hall meals, and a county program that provides on average of $150 a month toward food. Other services include classes on cooking with small appliances typically found in college housing and workshops on things such as money management and budget-friendly meals. They also have a mobile food app alerting students when leftover food is available from campus-catered events.

At the University of California, President Janet Napolitano was instrumental in launching the UC Global Food Initiative, putting food insecurity at the forefront of school priorities. She allocated more than $3.3 million over two years to tackle the problem, allowing individual campuses to use the funds based on their specific needs.

The 2016 University of California Global Food Initiative Student Food Access and Security Study indicated that 42 percent of UC students had low or very low food security. Food-insecure students reported lower grade point averages and were more likely to have to suspend their studies due to lack of funds. About a quarter of these students reported having to choose between food and educational, housing, or medical expenses. When asked, students prioritized getting more information about preparing simple or cheap healthy meals and how to budget over information about free food or federal assistance. This study also showed the main barriers to eating healthily besides cost were the time required to prepare or shop for food.

The California higher education system has set the bar. In only two years, UCLA's Sandoval has already seen the difference. "The need for food assistance has always been there. What has changed is the support from the top to address food insecurity," he says. "There is now more funding, publicity, and community support to combat food/basic needs insecurities on campuses in California."

Based on these results, the university made plans to increase awareness of resources, to create workshops to support basic needs, to provide dedicated spaces for students to store and prepare food, and to develop and train crisis response teams. They are looking at this as an ongoing process and plan to continue to collect data while working on partnerships with local organizations and coordinating information between the financial aid and student affairs offices.

Butler and Dike both attribute their success to an appreciation of the value of an education, which for them came with age. Each has earned a 3.5 grade point average and expects to graduate this spring; both plan to continue their education in the fall. Both are determined to succeed.