A look at the impact of food insecurity on college campuses

COCO ROMANO GIORDANO/FOGHORN

Sophia Harris is a sophomore hospitality major.

Kailyn Goodwin is a sophomore biology major.

Food insecurity affects between 15% to 50% of college students every year and continues to grow, yet it is constantly left out of discussions about the challenges that today’s students face. If we continue to ignore this issue, it will continue to worsen, making it impossible for low-income students to receive an education.

Food insecurity has large socioeconomic and systemic roots. The cost of college continues to rise, forcing students to choose between basic necessities, such as food, and school. We can see this with the federal Pell Grant, which was instituted in the 1970s when the average cost of tuition and fees at a four-year college was about $3,000 nationally. At that time, the maximum grant amount covered 77% of average tuition at a public four-year college and 36% at a private four-year college. However, today, the largest amount of money students can receive from the grant only covers 41% of an average four-year college’s tuition and 16% at a private four-year college. The decrease in coverage is due to tuition rapidly rising nationally, combined with a lack of action by the federal government to properly supplement these costs. These numbers don’t include room and board, textbooks, living expenses, or other costs associated with education. 

Low-income students are not receiving aid proportionate to their needs, meaning that they are less likely to be able to afford both an education and consistent access to healthy food. Considering this, the federal Pell Grant needs to increase, and the cost of higher education needs to stop climbing. This rise in cost is a problem that extends past individual institutions — it is a larger national issue that requires action by policymakers. 

If we take a look at the downstream effects, we’ll see that colleges and universities have been admitting more low-income students every year because of an increased focus on diversity. However, these low-income students often suffer from insufficient financial aid, making it challenging to afford food along with tuition and expenses like housing. Research shows that 75% of food-insecure students receive financial aid, with most receiving aid from two or more sources, including the Federal Work-Study Program. Additionally, 50% of all food-insecure students work 20 or more hours per week. These figures are often linked to an inaccurate cost of living estimation made by universities or other aid sources. 

The consequences of food insecurity amongst college students are vast and detrimental to their overall health and wellbeing. Those who suffer from food instability experience a decline in academic performance and are less likely to receive A’s in their classes. With credits at USF costing about $1,850 per unit, having to retake a class would force students into more debt. Along with struggling to maintain passing grades, these students are also at high risk of experiencing depression and anxiety. 

Additionally, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and mandatory stay-at-home orders, almost all on-campus services have been closed. Some students with on-campus jobs have been left without their sources of income while still having to maintain their financial responsibilities. Paying for remaining bills with little to no income increases the financial gap and forces students to become more food insecure.

Colleges, universities, and elected officials across the state have begun to do their part to combat food insecurity and improve the health of students. California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill in October 2019 that expanded student aid and included the CalFresh program, which provides students with a monthly allowance to purchase groceries. (In response to COVID-19, CalFresh recipients will receive an increase in value from the Emergency Allotment fund, and students can still apply today.) But only about 20% of students who are food insecure receive CalFresh, with the rest of the students not qualifying or not knowing they qualify, resulting in the program being underused. Universities are also implementing food pantries on their campuses as an effort to increase food stability among low-income students. With larger food pantries holding fresh produce and healthy shelf-stable foods, it allows for those in need to worry about one less meal a day. 

USF is among the universities that have opened a food pantry to serve their students in need. Before the pandemic, USF’s pantry, located in the G-level of Gleeson Library, was open twice a month with rotating food options from Bon Appétit’s surplus, sometimes including fresh produce. Although campus is now closed, there are still resources and open food banks serving the Bay Area that the Office of the Dean of Students has been boosting via email. 

USF’s food pantry is a step in the right direction for assisting food-insecure students, but more can be done. Along with the food pantry, monthly food donations from local food banks would increase the number of access students have to free and nutritious food. While food pantries have prompted improvement in the quality of student life, they are only a short-term solution. California’s state government and the higher education system requires a new framework that prioritizes feeding all students throughout the year.

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