While catching up with friends at UC Berkeley recently, the conversation turned to how accommodation shortages were affecting students at the university. Low-income students weren’t receiving enough financial aid to cover rent, resorting to calling local bridges home. They stretched bananas into multiple meals and used their friends’ cafeteria swipes to eat a hot meal whenever they could. Our conversation revealed states of precarity that were difficult to digest. How was it possible that students were living in these conditions while studying at one of the most esteemed universities in the U.S.?
It also appears that this is not a phenomenon isolated to the U.S.. Students at the University of Manchester reportedly rely on canned beans from food banks while others turn to sex work in Sussex to secure meals for the week. It is hard to imagine that university students could be hungry or homeless, but these headlines provide a glimpse into the everyday lived realities of nearly half of all undergraduates in countries like the U.S., the U.K. Canada, and Australia. Despite the growing evidence on food insecurity (FI), there has been little to no policy action, leaving an invisible student population highly susceptible to economic, physical, and mental scarring.
What is Food Insecurity?
FI is understood as irregular access to enough nutritious and safe food. A person’s food security status can range from low food security to high food security based on the US Department of Agriculture’s assessment criteria of availability, access, utilisation, and stability. FI is shown to affect a wide range of demographics (both middle class and working-class students), institution types (from colleges to Ivy League institutions like Harvard), and regions (rural and urban).
Young people who are at high risk include undergraduates, students of colour, low-income students, first generation students, and students who lack parental support. This suggests that adolescents coming from the most marginalised communities are at highest risk because they have no safety nets. Many students regularly skip meals, change their sleeping patterns to avoid eating, rely on processed foods, increase part time work hours, switch to less intensive courses, sell sex, ration meals, seek food bank assistance, and postpone medical and dental treatment.
Why does this matter?
FI is a documented threat to student success and has even been labelled a public health crisis. The striking prevalence of the issue highlights tensions between widening participation aims and meritocratic principles underlying higher education policy. For example, research establishes that university students experience FI up to four times higher than the general population. The Hope Center recently conducted the largest basic needs study to date, concluding that 45% of 86,000 students across 123 two- and four-year American institutions as FI, while a University of Oregon study found 58% of its student body to be food insecure. The issue has been snowballing in the last decade, prompting U.S. legislators to commission a government study to better understand FI and its effects in 2018.
This issue goes beyond chronicling a bunch of hungry student stories. Reducing student hunger to images of adolescents scoping out free pizza at meetings or eating snacks from vending machines is limiting and diminishes the sacrifices that students make to complete their degrees. Digging deeper into the problem reveals that the skyrocketing costs of tuition, coupled with unprecedented modern living costs, is pushing students into survival mode. Research shows the purchasing power of financial aid in the form of grants, scholarships and loans has declined dramatically as a result of neoliberal funding policies, which have shifted the cost of tuition and fees from the state to individuals. Interviews with students reveal that there is insufficient money left over from financial aid to pay for necessities like groceries and rent. Catered meals and rising food costs are pricing students out of adequate options to nourish themselves.
Poor quality diets and patterns of hunger are linked to a variety of negative consequences. Food insecure students are more likely to experience chronic health disorders, sleep disruption, and fatigue. Additionally, FI has disastrous effects on students’ mental health, with reported higher levels of stress, anxiety, depression and eating disorders when compared to non-FI students. Taken together, students have less mental and physical energy to work to their potential in the classroom.
Students experiencing FI are more likely to engage in work while studying to meet their basic needs, leaving little room for extracurricular involvement, study, and socializing. Social isolation is therefore another common consequence, as money is a barrier to spending time with friends through typical student activities like meals, drinks, or weekend trips.
Constant worry over where your next meal will come from takes a toll. It manifests through weakened in-class concentration, lower academic performance, academic probation, and even dropout, which are unsurprisingly much higher amongst those same students that universities are most eager to recruit. They simply cannot afford the basic hidden costs of school, which include breakfast.
What are the implications?
Marked increases in college and university enrolment in the past two decades has been accompanied by increasingly diverse student demographics, particularly those from low socio-economic backgrounds. In fact, students from low income backgrounds now enrol at U.S. universities at a higher rate than wealthier peers. Strategic efforts to recruit more disadvantaged students are falling short of their aims, as widening participation policies fail to account for ensuring vulnerable students’ basic needs are met. FI is therefore an unintended consequence that greatly compromises the academic and personal well-being of affected students.
The prevalence of FI disrupts the image of further and higher education students living in privileged bubbles. Students are starving themselves in order to afford a seat in the Ivory Tower in hopes of social mobility. As the issue has worsened in the U.S., institutions have responded by opening food banks on campus, establishing emergency funds, and helping low-income students to apply for public assistance benefits like food stamps. While these interventions are a step in the right direction, they are not enough and ignore the bigger issue at hand. FI is a symptom of poverty and raises questions about whether widening participation policies have truly made university spaces more inclusive. These policies should shift towards supporting the most disadvantaged students throughout the life cycle of their studies; one way is simply through making sure students can eat.
Social justice in postsecondary contexts advocates for equitable participation in accordance with students’ needs. Yet, the impacts of FI shows that higher education is not being experienced equitably due to social class. This signals a growing incompatibility with the aims of higher education and student outcomes, spurring the need for intersectoral collaboration on retention practices. By not addressing this problem, colleges and universities are perpetuating systemic barriers to marginalised students’ success. Young people are being forced to undermine their identities as students by devoting more energy to survival instead of self-development. The global debate over access versus quality of education persists and merits urgent review of retention practices and further research. Finding relevant solutions are both an economic and moral imperative for institutions and government bodies alike, as hunger is a poor excuse for losing talented students.
Many thanks to this week's contributor Dakota Maxwell-Jones, Research and Development Intern at NGO Global One.