College students: The new poor?

Most people picture college students dining on campus with a prepaid meal plan or cooking up a pizza in their tiny apartments.

College student eating |

So it might be surprising to you that a relatively high percentage of college students have experienced food insecurity at some point during the past year. What’s happening and how are these students finding help?

We all know there is a problem with hunger in the U.S. and that many people go hungry at the end of the day. What you may not realize is that food insecurity is also an issue with college students — and more often than you may think.

What is “food insecure?”

The term “food insecure” may not be a familiar one. Food insecurity refers to the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally-adequate foods and a person lacking the ability to acquire adequate food for daily nutrition. Food insecurities have been linked to learning difficulties and issues, depression, poor health and stress. Seen most often in elementary school students, when food insecurity is addressed it results in behavior improvements, better academic performance and better retention of knowledge. The 19 to 24-year-old demographic has been largely ignored in previous research.

College students not immune

Surprised? While the stereotypical college student eats three meals a day in the college cafeteria — and gains the famous “freshman 15” extra pounds — in reality, this isn’t always the case. Most on-campus dining plans are included in housing fees and many universities offer on-campus dining plans to students who live off-campus as well. However, for every student who is eating regularly through one of these programs, there is another student who struggles to fill his plate each day.

Researchers from Oregon State University, the Benton County Health Department and Western Oregon University decided to look a bit deeper into the issue. Their results were stunning — they revealed that 59 percent of students on one campus in Oregon reported being food insecure at some point during the previous year, which is almost four times higher than the percent of households in the U.S. reporting to be food insecure.

“Based on other research that’s been done, we expected some amount of food concerns among college students,” said Daniel López-Cevallos, associate director of research at OSU’s Center for Latino/a Studies and Engagement. “But it was shocking to find food insecurity of this severity. Several recent trends may be combining to cause this.”

What’s happening?

There are several factors that may be affecting the increase in numbers of food insecure college students:

  • Rising college costs are requiring students to take on more debt just for textbooks and tuition, leaving less money is available for meals.
  • More low-income and first-generation students are attending college than before and their food insecurity follows them to campus from home.
  • The economic difficulties faced by families who send their child to college — especially if a parent has lost a job or lost money in the market — are possibly pushing more of the monthly expenses onto the student than in previous years.

Just having a job isn’t the answer

You may be thinking that these college students just need to find employment so they can buy more adequate meals, but it’s not as easy as it seems. Simply having a job won’t solve this problem. The students in this survey who reported food insecurity worked an average of 18 hours per week and the income still wasn’t enough to make a significant difference. Most college students, generally speaking, are not eligible for food stamps.

How do students get help?

Clare Cady is coordinator of the Oregon State University (OSU) Human Services Resource Center (HSRC), which provides students with access to the OSU Food Pantry. They also act as a liaison between students and agencies that provide help, such as rental assistance, utility assistance, child care, health insurance and food stamps. The program has been in place since 2009 and has seen record increases in demand — an increase of 100 percent over the previous years for both 2010-2011 and 2011-2012. The need currently seems to be leveling off.

“We’re happy to see the numbers begin to flatten out,” Cady said. The outreach program has been successful in getting word out to the population most in need of their services, causing the increases to flatten out. Roughly 7,600 contacts were made with students during the 2012-2013 school year, many were with students who were returning more than once for services. The OSU Food Pantry served more than 2,500 people during that time period. Services range from an emergency food box to ongoing aid and support services. The OSU program has received national attention and recognition and is considered the model for other universities to follow as well.

Bottom line

“One thing that’s clear is that colleges and universities need to be having this conversation and learning more about the issues their students may be facing,” said López-Cevallos. “There may be steps to take locally that could help and policies that could be considered nationally. But it does appear this is a very serious issue that has not received adequate attention and we need to explore it further.”

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