Food insecurity on campus is a growing issue, but technology can help.

Food insecurity on campus is growing–technology can help

New systems for helping students fight food insecurity on campus could help increase academic success and reduce at-risk behaviors

Higher education brings with it a number of concerns for students, but one of the least talked-about–but most concerning–is the increasing issue of food insecurity on campus.

A new study from researchers at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville shows that college students in the university’s geographic area are impacted by food insecurity on campus at a higher rate than the national average, according to information from the university.

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Facing food insecurity on campus can lead to poor academic performance, unhealthy spending habits, and other negative coping mechanism, the researchers explain in the study, which is published in Current Developments in Nutrition.

Through a survey given at 10 four-year universities in the Southern Appalachia region, the researchers found that food insecurity has an average prevalence of 30.5 percent among students. The national average is roughly 12 percent, and at some campuses, food insecurity levels reached close to 52 percent.

More than 13,000 undergraduate and graduate students took the survey.

“We found that students who are food insecure had lower academic grades than those who did not face food insecurity,” says Marsha Spence, UT professor of public health nutrition and coauthor of the study. “These same students usually try to save money on other things to obtain food, such as spending less in transportation, utilities, and sometimes even medication.”

According to the study, several factors can predict food insecurity status: being a junior or a sophomore, having an ethnic minority background, receiving financial aid, and having reported poor health indicated a higher risk of food insecurity.

“This study is part of a growing body of evidence that suggests that a large percentage of college students, including students from four-year public institutions, are at risk of food insecurity,” says coauthor Elizabeth Anderson Steeves, professor in UT’s Department of Nutrition. “Studies like ours are important to understand food insecurity and its negative effects on students, so that universities can implement policies and programs to help alleviate this problem and help students succeed.”

Technology could help institutions address food insecurity on campus.

Food pantries have popped up as a way to help students have steady access to food, and therefore improve their chances for academic success.

But there is all too often a stigma students feel upon walking into a campus-operated food pantry. This leads students to avoid seeking help, and at-risk students continue to remain at risk.

“Students at high risk include first-generation students, international students, DACA students and athletes,” says Della Hudson, associate dean of student affairs.

At Adelphi University in Garden City, NY, the campus food pantry, called the “Panther Pantry,” uses technology to make the process completely free of any shame or stigma for students–or even faculty and staff–with food insecurity.

Orders can be made online and delivered anonymously, and all products in the pantry are new and brand name. Donations are monetary and don’t consist of a plethora of dented cans of random items, university representatives say.

“It’s not your typical food pantry,” says Dr. Christine M. Riordan, the university’s president. “Sometimes people don’t want to come in and say that they don’t have enough to eat, and we don’t want members of our community feeling any sort of stigma. So our team put together a virtual food pantry, where individuals can go online, put in an order and have food delivered.”

When the Panther Pantry opened this past fall, it had more than 100 orders in its first three weeks–numbers peer schools see in an entire academic year. Most users are undergraduate students and most orders are placed online.

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Laura Ascione

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