More solutions needed for campus hunger

A new federal report does a fairly good job of explaining what many researchers have been saying for a decade – food insecurity among college students is a serious national problem.

As one University of California, Berkeley student revealed in an interview for a 2018 research article I helped write: “Food is always on my mind: ‘Do I have enough money? Maybe I should skip a meal today so I can have enough food for dinner.‘”

However, when it comes to offering up solutions, the new report from the Government Accountability Office comes up short.

My experience as one who has researched campus hunger goes back to 2014, when colleagues and I conducted the first public university system wide survey of campus hunger. We found that over 40 percent of University of California students – about half of all undergraduates and one out of every four graduate students – faced food insecurity. That is more than three times the national household rate of 12 percent. Food security is generally defined as access at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.

Our findings on campus hunger have been replicated in the University of California system, the California State University system and in colleges throughout the nation.

Effects of an empty stomach

For those who are food secure, it might be easy to scoff at the notion that somehow college students can’t find enough to eat. The reality is hunger among college students has psychological impacts that affect student performance. For instance, in a 2018 study, colleagues and I found students experiencing food insecurity had a lower grade point average than students not facing food insecurity.

Researchers and I also found that not having access to enough food at all times increased a student’s risk for poor mental health. This, in turn, increases their risk for lower grades.

So what does the latest federal report – released 10 years after the first study documenting hunger on campus – say about the problem and what should be done about it?

The new federal report states that from nine to over 50 percent of America’s college students face food insecurity. The report also reveals that of the two to three million students at-risk for food insecurity who were potentially eligible for participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – more commonly known as SNAP – only 43 percent were receiving those benefits.