The Growing Presence of Hunger on Campus

10.9.18 – The familiar trope of a college student eating ramen while pulling an all-nighter reveals a troubling truth – around 40% of students cannot afford enough healthy food. These students often have to make difficult decisions, like whether to pay for tuition or groceries.   

cropStudents at UCLA take home produce gleaned by Food Forward volunteers


What’s the issue?

On college campuses across the country, a growing number of students are unable to afford the quantity and quality of food they need to be healthy and succeed academically. According to numerous studies, about 40% of students qualify as food insecure, meaning they lack reliable access to enough affordable and nutritious food.¹ This number is striking, especially when compared with the 12.5% of the general population who are food insecure.² Food insecurity among college students is often overlooked because people assume that being a “broke college student” is a rite of passage. However, lack of access to quality food is a serious issue for college students and one we should pay more attention to.


Who has the highest risk of experiencing food insecurity in college?

According to Feeding America’s 2014 Hunger in America report, around two million of its 46.5 million adult clients are full-time college students.³ Contrary to popular stereotypes, most food insecure students are working, receiving financial aid, and many are enrolled in meal plans.⁴ Penn State reported that those most at risk of being food insecure in college included students of color, students who experienced childhood food insecurity, lower-income students, students receiving financial aid, employed students, students without access to vehicles, financially independent students, and first-generation college students.⁵ And with the rising costs of tuition, books, and housing, more and more students are facing food insecurity.


26903347732_b30f18895a_oBurdened by the rising costs of tuition, books, and housing, many students cannot afford enough nutritious food (photo by John Vande Weg and Taya Kendall)

Those most at risk of being food insecure in college included students of color, students who experienced childhood food insecurity, lower-income students, students receiving financial aid, employed students, students without access to vehicles, financially independent students, and first-generation college students.

How does food insecurity affect the lives of college students?

Students are supposed to be worried about their final exams or their post-grad plans – not whether or not they can afford to buy food. Being food insecure impacts students in many ways, adding stress onto their busy schedules and negatively affecting their mental health and ability to focus.

In order to cope with food insecurity, students have reported skipping meals, purchasing inexpensive processed foods, asking family or friends for money, stretching food to make it last longer, working at least one part-time job, and making trade-offs between food and other basic necessities. As tuition and other costs of university study go up, students are increasingly making the hard decision to financially support their studies over their well-being, as nutrition simply becomes an “unaffordable luxury”.⁶

Aside from not regularly consuming three meals a day, food insecurity in students is also linked with disordered eating behaviors. In addition, food insecure students often have increased levels of stress, poorer levels of sleep quality, poorer physical and mental health status, and experience more headaches. Academically, they often have difficulty studying, lower grade-point-averages, and higher rates of failed courses and withdrawing from college altogether.⁷ One student articulated this relationship perfectly when she said, “Trying to do homework when you haven’t eaten for the past seventy hours is not going to happen.”⁸


screen-shot-2018-10-05-at-3-46-40-pmFood pantries, food recovery programs, and dining hall donations are all ways campuses can provide equitable access and reduce food waste


What can you do?

If you are: a student experiencing food insecurity in the United States at this very moment, find your nearest food bank through Feeding America or There are also popular programs that specifically cater to college students, such as Swipe Out Hunger or The Campus Kitchens Project.⁹

If you are: looking to improve food security on your campus, some solutions that have worked for universities include introducing on-campus SNAP retailers, campus food pantries, food recovery programs, dining center meal donations, campus community gardens, and campus farmers markets.

If you are: a policy maker or voter, you can help fight college food insecurity by getting state and university governments to collaborate on meal plan scholarships for low-income students to address hunger discreetly. In addition, supporting and passing laws that support donations of produce or leftover food will continue the fight against food insecurity.

And anyone can volunteer with Food Forward and donate to support our work! Currently, we donate produce to several campuses and college programs in the LA area, including Rio Hondo College, Santa Monica College Students Feeding Students, Los Angeles Valley College, Swipe Out Hunger at UCLA, Harbor College, Los Angeles City College, Cal State University Northridge, and Cal State Long Beach. Your involvement helps us get fresh produce to these students, which means they have more time and energy to focus on their futures.


1 Dubick, James, et al. “Hunger on Campus.” College and University Food Bank Alliance, 2016, pp. 1–47, Hunger on Campus; Diamond, Kate & Stebleton, Michael J. “Do You Understand What It Means to be Hungry? Food Insecurity on Campus and the Role of Higher Education Professionals.” The Mentor, Penn State, 11 April 2017, 2 “What Is Food Insecurity in America?” Feeding America. 3 Yavorski, Kimberly. “The College Students Who Are Starving in Silence.” Pacific Standard, Pacific Standard, 6 July 2017, 4 Tomar, David, et al. “Hungry To Learn: Food Insecurity Spreads On Campus.” The Best Schools,, 2018, 5 Diamond, Kate & Stebleton, Michael J. 6 Dubick, James, et al. 7 Ibid. 8 Diamond, Kate & Stebleton, Michael J. 9 “Resource Library.” Challah for Hunger, Challah for Hunger, 2018, 

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