We’re all familiar with the narrative of college students subsisting on black coffee and ramen noodles; it’s seen as a rite of passage, a punchline to a joke. But emerging data has found that the issue of hunger at college is no laughing matter.

New research has revealed the problem is serious and widespread, affecting almost half of all students at community and public colleges in the U.S. In this article we take a look at what food insecurity is, how common it is and the impact it has. We’ll also take a look at some of the current solutions to the issue and what can be done going forward.

What is food insecurity?

In the simplest terms, food insecurity is the position of having limited or uncertain access to food.  This can include not having access to nutritionally adequate and safe food and can also mean being in a position where acquiring this food cannot be done in a socially acceptable manner. In its most extreme form, food insecurity is accompanied by the physiological sensations of hunger.

An empty plate with a sad face

How prevalent is it?

According the federal government’s 2018 U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, food insecurity undermines postsecondary educational experiences and credential attainment for many of today’s college students.

A survey released earlier this year by Temple University’s Hope Center for College, Community and Justice found that 45% of student respondents from over 100 institutions said they had experienced food insecurity in the previous 30 days. In the same survey, almost half of students said they could not afford to eat balanced meals. Almost 1 in 5 of the students attending two-year institutes said they lost weight because there was not enough money for food.

A man looks unhappy

It’s worth noting that the rates of food insecurity vary among student demographics. For example, there are statistically significant racial and ethnic disparities, with the overall rate of food insecurity among students identifying as African American or Black standing at 58%. This is around 8% higher than the overall rate for Hispanic or Latinx students and 19% higher than the overall rate for students identifying as White or Caucasian.  Rates are also higher for LGBTQ students, those independent from their parents or guardians for financial aid purposes and those who are themselves parents.  

Interestingly, working during college doesn’t protect a student from food insecurity. In fact, the majority of students who experience food insecurity (68%) are employed. Likewise, receiving the federal Pell Grant (a subsidy the U.S. federal government provides for students who need it to pay for college) isn’t associated with a lower risk of food insecurity, but a greater risk.  

Of course, this is just one study. But the statistics in this report are pretty robust, including data from 123 colleges and with 86,000 student participants across the United States.

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