A man peers into the fridge and sees only an apple. A new report details the variables that influence how food insecurity can fluctuate for many college students.

6 new findings about food insecurity on campus

A new report details the variables that influence how food insecurity can fluctuate for many college students

Rising tuition and massive student loans are regulars in news headlines, but a lesser-known plight is plaguing students at campuses across the nation. Food insecurity is an increasingly difficult challenge for many college students, and it leads to poor academic performance and an inability to balance the demands of school, work, and family, according to a new study.

Studying on Empty: A Qualitative Study of Low Food Security Among College Students, from Trellis Company, explores the lived experiences of students with food insecurity, how students cope with its challenges, and how these strategies influence academic performance.

Related content: How technology can help solve food insecurity on campus

The report reveals common drivers of food insecurity at the collegiate level and also highlights promising practices for supporting students with low food security.

This is the first report from the Trellis Financial Security Study, in which Trellis followed 72 current students for nine months, capturing the shifting nature of food insecurity in a college setting. This qualitative study describes the dynamics that can affect students’ levels of food security (i.e., high/marginal, low, and very low), as well as the mechanisms through which food insecurity can harm students’ academic standards and career goals.

“Our ability to interact with the same students over an extended period of time enabled us to discover that food security among college students is typically fluid, which provides an additional layer of understanding,” says Jeff Webster, Trellis’ director of research. “Students also shared that their academic performance mirrored their level of food security. The student voices captured in this study speak to the power of unexpected events and the difficult prioritizations students make each day that affect their food security.”

“This qualitative study provides critical insights, nuance, and real student stories to the accumulating quantitative data and findings on college student food security. This report ought to be read by anyone interested in meeting students’ needs and improving student success,” says David Tandberg, vice president of policy research and strategic initiatives at the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association.

Key findings include:

1. While low food security often stems from a scarcity of money, there are other factors like insufficient time, persistent stress, and lack of information that can exacerbate low food security.

2. Students who struggle with food insecurity often face hard choices in how to allocate their scarce time and often are forced to neglect academic work in order to obtain more steady access to food.

3. Food insecurity is not static, but fluid, subject to catalysts that improve and degrade security.

4. Food security tends to decline when students face employment disruptions, loss of financial aid, family crises, and unexpected costs such as car repairs, rent increases, spike in utility costs, and changes in daycare arrangements.

5. Food security often improves when students find living wage jobs with easy commutes, gain access to financial aid or public benefit programs, receive money or living accommodations from family or romantic partners, and obtain low-price textbooks.

6. When students are able to become food secure, they often report increased sleep, reduced stress, and higher levels of energy.

Food insecurity is attracting more notice, and as it does, campuses are responding with solutions to support students who struggle.

A 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.

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.

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.

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Laura Ascione
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