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Food Insecurity

The U.S. Department of Agriculture describes two categories of food insecurity: low food security and very low food security. The USDA describes those with low food security as having to cut back on the “quality, variety, or desirability of diet” with “little or no indication of reduced food intake.” Very low food security is when there are “multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.”

Hunger on Campus found food insecurity to be an issue nontraditional and first-generation students especially face, as well as students of color. Food and housing insecurity can affect a student’s ability to succeed in getting an education, as over half of students with food or housing insecurity reported missing class or not buying a textbook, and one in four said they’ve had to drop a class.

Housing Insecurity

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says five conditions define housing instability: high housing costs, poor housing quality, unstable neighborhoods, overcrowding, and homelessness. If a household is paying more than 30% of its income on housing, it could be considered as facing housing insecurity. Living in a neighborhood with high crime rates or having more residents in a home than intended can also be signs of housing insecurity

Data from Feeding America

Food insecurity has the potential to harm college students’ ability to achieve their educational and professional goals.

The demographic makeup of the college student population has changed in recent decades. According to a 2018 Government Accountability Office report, less than one-third are “traditional” students, whose characteristics include being enrolled full-time in college directly after high school while remaining financially dependent on their parents. Instead, most college students (71%) are “nontraditional,” meaning they may possess the following characteristics: experience financial independence, are enrolled part-time, work full-time while in school, are caretakers for dependents, and/or did not receive a traditional high school diploma. Additionally, college students are entering school later than students in the past: the average age at first enrollment is 21, and the overall average age of students is 26. As such, many college students are balancing schoolwork with parenting, with 22% of students caring for child dependents and 14% doing so as single parents. Overall, the share of college students with low household incomes has increased, and when these factors are combined with the rising cost of education, many adult students are struggling to make ends meet.

Food banks have responded to need on college campuses with brick-and-mortar food pantries on college campuses, mobile pantries that distribute on or near campuses, SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) application assistance, and more. While awareness of the existence of such approaches is growing, there has been a lack of knowledge and evidence about the role of the charitable food sector in serving college students, which constrains opportunities for strategic coordination.

Supported by The Kresge Foundation, Feeding America partnered with Claremont Graduate University to better understand 1) how network food banks are addressing college food insecurity in their communities, and 2) how college students are experiencing college hunger. For the first phase, the evaluation team leveraged interviews with select food banks and a survey, open to the entire Feeding America Network (200 food banks), to explore the landscape of charitable services to address hunger on college campuses. In the second phase, the evaluation team held listening sessions at three college campuses and conducted interviews with pantry staff and campus administrators to learn more about challenges and opportunities in addressing hunger on college campuses.


Key findings from the college hunger study include:

  • Of the 150 food banks that responded to the survey, 129 food banks in the Feeding America network are working to address hunger among college students.
  • 110 food banks distribute food directly to college students, which is the most common approach to addressing college hunger, followed by assisting students with completing the SNAP application (39 food banks), and policy and advocacy efforts (33 food banks).
  • Feeding America food banks operate 316 pantries and 124 mobile pantry distributions on college campuses.
  • Food banks encounter facilitators and barriers to successful college hunger activities that fall into one of four categories: 1) Relationships/partnerships, 2) Awareness, 3) Access, and 4) Operations

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