Using Theory to Inform Practice: Supporting College Students with Food Insecurity

Food insecurity is not a new development, but the attention higher education institutions place on combating this issue has grown. Until 2007, Michigan State University’s Student Food Bank claims it was the only service of its kind on a college campus. Today, the College and University Food Bank Alliance supports more than 300 such entities, many of which are located in college unions. Although institutions have not been involving themselves at an administrative level for long, several colleges are implementing effective services for students facing food insecurity. This issue will not be resolved quickly; however, the services that various colleges are providing are helping countless students now and in the future. 

The Prevalence of Food Insecurity Among College Students

One of the challenges of food insecurity is that it has no one universal definition. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, food insecurity is defined by physical health-related characteristics such as calorie intake and weight loss attributed to undernutrition. Although this description is technically correct, students have different narratives of what food insecurity means to them. To some, it means not knowing what one’s next meal will be or where it will come from and how much food one will have the next day, week, or even month, researcher Lisa Henry reported in a 2017 Annals of Anthropological Practice article. 

A Wisconsin HOPE Lab report released in April 2018 summarized a survey of 43,000 students at 66 institutions in 20 states and the District of Columbia. It found 36% of students were food insecure in the 30 days prior to the survey. This number affirms Heather Novak’s and Jennifer Johnson’s literature review in the 2016–17 edition of Colorado State University’s Journal of Student Affairs: “Depending on the university and the definition of ‘campus food insecurity,’ studies have indicated that somewhere between one-fifth to more than one-half of college students experience food insecurity.”Florida International University Food Pantry tour

Florida International University Food Pantry tourExisting research suggests that college students experience food insecurity in higher numbers in comparison to the general population, Henry explained. According to a 2016 U.S. Department of Agriculture study, 12.3% of households are food insecure. This is almost half the percentage of food insecure college students from a 2016 National Student Campaign against Hunger and Homelessness study surveying 4,000 college students at 26 institutions. In that report, researchers James Dubick, Brandon Mathews, and Clare Cady found that 57% of black or African American students reported food insecurity while 40% of non-Hispanic or white students reported food insecurity. Additionally, 56% of first-generation students reported food insecurity compared to the 45% of students who were not first-generation and reported food insecurity. The Wisconsin HOPE Lab study also found larger disparities among community college students than four-year college students and that “basic needs insecurities disproportionately affect marginalized students.” Food insecurity is a prevalent issue that requires much attention by all stakeholders in higher education (faculty, staff, students, and community members). As Dubick, Mathews, and Cady asserted, “We need to move beyond being surprised at the numbers and develop action plans.” 

College Campuses Respond

Throughout the United States, universities are creating services to support students faced with food insecurity; these services are typically referred to as on-campus food pantries and frequently are located in the college’s student center. Food pantries are spaces students can visit to pick up free food and, sometimes, clothing, hygiene products, and school supplies. These pantries, such as those at the University of West Florida and the University of Toledo, are usually run off monetary and/or food donations from students, faculty, and staff. Some of these pantries, like the one at the University of Central Florida, are started by students who recognize the abundance of food insecurity on their campus. Students are emerging as leaders against this issue by helping their peers acquire basic needs such as food and hygiene products.

Those who staff these pantries, whether they be full-time faculty and staff or student volunteers, know that food insecurity is a prevalent issue, so the pantries are usually open to all enrolled students. However, often they have to place limitations on how often students can utilize the service on a weekly, monthly, or semesterly basis; otherwise, they would not be able to help as many students. For example, Wright State University only allows its students to utilize the pantry once a month because its service is in such high demand. Some other pantries also limit the number of items that can be taken at one time—either overall or by item category. Pantry procedures are typically short and easy: presenting one’s student ID card to the staff and sometimes completing a brief application and/or interview. 

University of Nebraska Lincoln food pantryFor students who cannot access the pantry during its normal business hours, some campuses have made alternatives available. The University of Utah offers premade bags of food at the Union Services Desk in the lobby; students can leave behind any unwanted items. Although the food pantry at the University of Nevada–Reno is located in the union, a Mobile Monday program “provides a monthly farmer’s market-style event to the campus, allowing students to receive fresh produce for free. These events also provide students with the educational opportunity to receive information from the Student Health Center, SNAP Outreach workers from the Food Bank of Northern, and our campus farming group, Desert Farming Initiative,” according to its website.

Their Silent Struggle

The stigma and shame surrounding food insecurity are major challenges to addressing this issue for college students. Through the findings of a qualitative study of students at the University of North Texas, Henry described students who were food insecure as enduring a “silent struggle.” Study participants who identified as food insecure reported feelings of awkwardness and embarrassment when confronted with food insecurity at the social level. These students would avoid activities such as going out to eat with their food secure friends, and the topic was generally avoided in conversations among food secure and insecure friends, thus reinforcing the silence. 

As previously mentioned, no universal definition for food insecurity exists. Thus, as students struggle silently, they often perceive themselves as not struggling enough to need to seek additional resources. Based on society’s view of the “broke college student,” participants of Henry’s study perceived poor eating habits as normal and as a “rite of passage.” 

Food pantries need to keep these themes in mind in providing for food insecure students on their campuses. Many pantries on college campuses allow all students to utilize their services, choosing not to have a formal screening process first as the level of need varies based on the student. The application process in place is mostly to gather demographic data and to better understand the students choosing to utilize the pantry.

Southern Illinois University Saluki Food PantryMaintaining discretion also allows the pantry to better address the issues of stigma and shame for food insecure students. Student unions frequently serve as the host of food pantries due to their central location on college campuses. The actual pantry is typically located in a more inconspicuous location of the facility or has a private entrance. For example, the Saluki Food Pantry at Southern Illinois University is tucked away area on the lower level of the Student Center. The Huskers Helping Huskers Pantry+ at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln uses the same bags distributed by the university bookstore so that it is not apparent students have utilized the pantry when they leave the Nebraska Union to go about their day.Southern Illinois University Saluki Food Pantry

Students who either volunteer or work in the pantry may be in the same math class or student organization as a student utilizing the pantry. Students who are food insecure may avoid using the pantry for fear of being recognized. To ensure that students feel comfortable utilizing the pantry and returning if needed, staff training on respecting privacy is essential. As an additional step, staff and volunteers at Benny’s Pantry, located in Idaho State University’s Pond Student Union Building, sign a confidentiality form prior to working. 

From a Student Development Lens

A large part of this battle against food insecurity is education; too often, students do not have the financial dexterity or awareness that could reduce food insecurity. Campuses can do more to educate their students on the resources that can help prevent and lessen food insecurity. Some campus pantry staff and volunteers already direct students to additional resources. These resources include community programs and agencies that serve as food pantries, workshops regarding financial literacy and nutritional knowledge, and contact information for organizations that provide food stamps and food budgeting education. Others host programs that support education in this area. For example, the Campus Harvest Food Pantry at Durham Technical Community College offers cooking demonstrations about shopping and eating healthy on a budget. Such support is needed as the Wisconsin HOPE Lab study reported that nearly half of college students do not feel they can afford to eat balanced meals. 

College employees may not be aware of the extent to which food insecurity affects students’ college experience. Food insecurity is about more than undernutrition; it is a catalyst for other struggles as well. It is linked to increased anxiety, deficits in social confidence and social activity, and reduced GPAs, Henry reported. These challenges are directly related to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs; first and foremost, students must have food as a basic need. Once they have basic survival needs secured, they can move through their psychological needs (i.e., belonging and self-esteem). However, they cannot attain these psychological needs if their most basic physical needs are not met. For example, if a student does not have the money to go out to dinner with their friends, they will do one of two things: 1) they will not go with their friends and miss out on developing that sense of belonging, or 2) they will go with their friends but be anxious about money. Being hungry is more than just being hungry; it disturbs every area of someone’s life.

The other part of a student’s psychological development is their pattern of learning. Benjamin S. Bloom constructed a pyramid for understanding individual learning, called Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives,  in 1956, but David Krathwhol and Lorin Anderson revised it in 2001. Both versions explain the importance of cognitive development as it relates to learning, not as the simple retention of facts, but as the process of using that knowledge for higher level thinking. When students are not getting the proper amount and type of food they need, they cannot practice developing skills in this higher level thinking. In the 2016 National Student Campaign against Hunger and Homelessness study, researcher Kasia Kovacs found that food insecurity caused 55% of students to not purchase a required textbook for class, 53% to miss a class, and 25% to drop a class.

College personnel need to understand the process of cognitive development and the extent to which it is hindered when students are hungry and/or stressed about being hungry. Campus-wide understanding of this connection could help generate buy-in from campus stakeholders regarding food pantries and other initiatives to reduce food insecurity among college students. Food insecurity often causes other challenges that affect varying areas on campus. When students do not have money for food, they typically do not have money to purchase textbooks from the campus bookstore, pay for on- or off-campus housing, pay dues for campus organization membership, or participate in other on-campus activities. Food insecurity affects all areas of college campuses; therefore, it is all areas’ responsibility to help where they can. 

Establishing Institutional Buy-In

Food pantries on college campuses rely on a combination of institutional funding and monetary donations. Partnerships with the institutional development or foundation offices are established to recognize donations to the pantries as institutional giving. The University of Nevada–Las Vegas even allows contributions via payroll deduction.

The other educational piece regarding food insecurity is the education of faculty and staff. According to Henry, existing research demonstrates that students who are food insecure struggle to succeed while in college. Professors, academic advisors, hall directors, and on-campus job supervisors can be the greatest advocates for food insecure students, recognizing when the students they interact with closely experience these challenges and referring them to resources, including campus food pantries. Collaborations with student organizations on campus programs also spread awareness of this issue so that students can advocate for their peers as well.

But true, sustainable buy-in requires more than simply financial support; successful food pantries have utilized creative methods of securing donated items. Milligan’s Food Pantry at SUNY–Buffalo worked with Chartwells, the university’s food service contractor, to allow students the option to donate unused meal swipes to avoid food waste. Chartwells then matched those funds to donate food to the pantry. The Saluki Food Pantry at Southern Illinois University received free toothbrushes and toothpaste from SIU’s dental hygienist program. The University of Texas–San Antonio maintains an Amazon wish list to make item donation easy. As part of its Catered Cupboard program, California State University–Fresno uses the campus's mobile app to send push notifications communicating to students where food is available at the end of catered events. Similarly, the University of Utah participates in the Food Recovery Network to fight waste and use surplus food in its pantry. Virginia Commonwealth University’s Ram Pantry, located in the Student Commons, partners with area businesses to provide unsold Panera Bread items, organic produce from a local farm, and Virginia-based Soapbox soaps and C.F. Sauer spices.University of Nebraska Lincoln food pantry

Obtaining support from student, faculty, and staff partners through programming and donations not only alleviates costs out of the pantry’s operating budget but also spreads greater awareness across campus. For example, in addition to donation bins, which many pantries make available to campus departments, Wake Technical Community College has a Sponsor-a-Shelf program. Pantries such as the Huskers Helping Huskers Pantry at University of Nebraska–Lincoln work closely throughout the year with student organizations as well as fraternities and sororities to host food donation drives. The University of Texas–Arlington also hosts produce drives in addition to accepting nonperishables.

As the costs of higher education continues to rise, issues of food insecurity among students will continue to prevail on campuses. Collaborations and institutional buy-in become increasingly important as operating budgets shrink. Most importantly, limited resources and a greater need for student assistance call for greater intentionality as campus food pantries work to ensure their policies and practice align with student development theory. College union personnel and student organization advisors have an opportunity to influence positive change in supporting existing food pantries and education programs as well as advocating for the students who want to create new ones.

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