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Food Insecurity on College Campuses: When Do I Have to Feel Hungry Enough?

By Jennings Brooks

The metallic click of the elevator doors sound in the lobby of Creswell Hall and Payton Perez walks in, alongside a boy weighted by the heft of the grocery bags he carries. “PB&J supplies,” said the boy as he catches Payton cautiously eyeing the way the plastic Kroger bags cut into the circulation of his fingers, making the tips bright red. “My favorite snack,” she awkwardly replies – usually no one ever talks in the freshmen dorm elevators. “I wish,” he sighs, exasperated. “I don’t have a meal plan.” 


Situations like these are all too prevalent on college campuses, however, most suffering from the burdens of food insecurity are not brave enough to speak up on behalf of themselves. Undergraduate students of all backgrounds, but especially low-income students, are susceptible to food insecurity while pursuing higher-level education at four-year institutions. Food insecurity is an issue that is common on all campuses, yet one that has not produced the necessary awareness needed to inititate long-term resources intended to aid food-insecure students.


So, What is Food Insecurity?

The Wisconsin HOPE Lab defines food insecurity as “the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods in a socially acceptable manner.” In sum, food insecurity is when an individual suffers from intermittent or inconsistent access to meals, marked by periods of uncertainty in regard to where their next meal may come from. According Dr. Anthony Abraham Jack, food insecurity can be viewed in two different states: chronic and episodic. Chronic food insecurity can be defined as not knowing where the next meal will come from – most common in community and state colleges – while episodic food insecurity – occurring on well-resourced campuses - can be defined as low-income students struggling to adequately feed themselves due to circumstances such as school recesses and dining hall closures. Dr. Jack is a Harvard graduate professor who focuses his research on low-income undergraduates in higher education and has found that half of our nation’s college students may struggle with food insecurity. 


According to Dr. Jack, tuition and ancillary expenses for institutions nation-wide have risen while enrollment of low-income students has also risen. Even with institutional or federal financial aid, a gap exists between “what students receive and what they need to survive and thrive.” As universities exert their efforts to diversify their campuses and open the doors to higher education, campuses “need to be aware of the problems [lower-income students] face, and food insecurity is one of these problems” claims Dr. Jack. 


Prevalence of Food Insecurity

Food insecurity is an issue that universities - no matter the size - face on a national level. A 2018 national survey by the Wisconsin HOPE Lab was administered to 43,000 students at 66 institutions of higher education in 20 states and found that “36 percent of university students were food insecure in the 30 days preceding the survey.” The study further illustrated that even 26% of students living on-campus and benefitting from on-campus dining services still experienced food insecurity due to campus closures or by the limited variety of affordable meal plans and other dining options. 


As this issue is experienced vastly on a national level, the students attending Georgia institutions are certainly not exempt. According to a report compiled by The Hope Center for College, Community and Justice in 2018, Georgia students were slightly more likely to report food insecurity – measured at 37% of those surveyed – compared to the national population sample measured at 36%. 45% of Georgia students reported utilizing the various resources offered to help combat food insecurity including tax refunds, Medicaid and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). SNAP is a federal program intended to benefit those suffering from food insecurity, however, the difficult eligibility requirements provide barriers to students who are in need, resulting in only 12% of food-insecure Georgia students receiving SNAP in 2018, according to The Hope Center. Despite these federal barriers, there are more short-term resources being offered on an institutional level to combat food insecurity. 


Available Resources and Suggested Solutions

Assistant Dean for Student Care and Outreach at The University of Georgia, Dr. Carrie Smith, explained the variety of resources UGA offers to combat food insecurity including: the Student Food Pantry, the Big Dawg Eats Scholarship, individual college initiatives such as Franklin Fridges and Student Care and Outreach to help alleviate other financial stressors to allocate money towards food. UGA dining services also offers student worker positions where employees receive a shift meal. According to Dr. Smith, “food insecurity at UGA exists but is difficult to measure to some degree. It is difficult to say [whether students suffer from chronic or episodic food insecurity] when you are looking at a snapshot of their lives.” According to Dr. Smith, we often “make assumptions of what students experience who are experiencing food insecurity.” The struggle is identifying those who feel they aren’t struggling enough to utilize these resources. “Sometimes people think they aren’t hungry enough,” said Dr. Smith. “Regardless of severity of need, all students have the right to these resources.” 


According to Dr. Jack, a “knowledge gap” exists around meeting the needs of this population because “students who are the most economically vulnerable [and most susceptible to food insecurity] are also the least likely to ask for help.” Additionally, the social stigma associated with food insecurity can deter students from seeking out available resources and make it more difficult for college administrators to market available resources. Different strategies have been taken nation-wide to combat food insecurity. Emory University in Atlanta, GA has implemented a swipe donation system where students have the ability to donate up to two guest meal swipes to a pool accessible to food-insecure students. According to the Hope Lab, campuses are continually opening food pantries for their on-campus population and auxiliary pantries that target graduate and commuter students. The University of California-Merced’s “pop-up pantries” are located throughout campus and serve up to nearly one-fifth of students on campus. Other innovative ways institutions run their campus pantries are through incentivizing students to volunteer by offering service hour credit and providing grocery store gift cards for food-insecure students. 


What Can We Do?

In terms of long-term solutions, not much. According to Dr. Smith, food insecurity is an issue that is becoming more well-known throughout our communities but continues to be difficult to measure due to its invisible nature. Efforts are being taken on both an institutional and federal level to combat the immediacy of food insecurity, yet long-term solutions for food-insecure students are still being developed. As the various studies from The Hope Lab demonstrate, food insecurity is “not an issue that is limited to the University of Georgia,” said Dr. Smith. This is not an issue that will disappear in the future, but with a more widespread awareness of food insecurity and through aligning university efforts, the burdens food-insecure students face may begin to grow lighter. 




Source List

Carrie Smith, Assistant Dean of Student Care and Outreach, 601-941-0595

Payton Perez, Student, 

Goldbrick-Rab, Sara, et al. “Campus Food Pantries: Insights From a National Survey.” Hope 4 College, The Hope Center For College, Community and Justice , 28 Sept. 2018,

Rule, Cheryl Sternman, and Anthony Abraham Jack. “ When Students Are Hungry: An Examination of Food Insecurity in Higher Education.” Bon Appetite Management Company, Bon Appetite Management Company, 2018, .

Tatter, Grace. “Food Insecurity on College Campuses.” Harvard Graduate School of Education, Harvard Graduate School of Education, 2018,

The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice. “Basic Needs Security Among Students Attending Georgia Colleges and Universities.” Hope 4 College, The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, 15 Oct. 2018,

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