College Students: Stress, Debt, and Hunger

by Heidi Andrianos

Pulling all-nighters and consuming cheap ramen on a daily basis are accepted as natural parts of the American college experience. But our tongue-in-cheek joking about broke college students is the reality for many – and might have more serious consequences than we might think, such as more frequent symptoms of depression and adverse academic outcomes. Several studies demonstrate that a sizeable percentage of college students in the U.S. are food insecure (see here, here and here) – in other words, the generation we are meant to be educating and fostering lacks consistent access to enough food for a healthy life

According to a survey of approximately 86,000 students published in April 2019 by Temple University, 45 percent of students from 123 college institutions claimed to have been food insecure in the past 30 days. More than half of the respondents from two-year institutions and 44 percent of those from four-year colleges worried about running out of food, while almost half of all respondents claimed they could not afford to eat balanced, nutritious meals on a daily basis. 

These figures come at a time when the price of a college education is higher than it has ever been. While more students qualify for financial aid – probably because of the surging numbers of people enrolling – colleges actually have fewer dollars per student to spend. The result? National student debt has also reached a record high at almost 1.5 trillion dollars in the first quarter of 2019. 

It’s hard to concentrate on studying and excel on your exams if you’re hungry. It’s even harder to concentrate if you have to work at the same time, which, according to a study done by Georgetown University, more than 70 percent of students do. But perhaps most troubling to some students is the prospect of signing up for even more loans to cover their living costs. 

Calvin Ramsay, a student at New York University, told the New York Times that he had accumulated “massive amounts of debt” in pursuit of his degree. When he realized he would need another $40,000 in order to graduate, he quit his studies and moved back home with his family so he could save money. Insufficient access to affordable food played a large role in his decision. Unsurprisingly, food insecurity is strongly correlated with lower college graduation rates. 

While students can receive SNAP benefits, they must meet certain eligibility requirements, such as proving that they work at least 20 hours a week or that they are the primary caretakers of a child. These requirements make access to benefits even harder. A report from the Government Accountability Office found that 57 percent of low-income college students who were potentially eligible for benefits did not participate in SNAP as of 2016. Since SNAP eligibility requirements for college students can be difficult to understand, many potentially eligible students may be unaware or misinformed about the benefits that are available to them.

This isn’t to say that students don’t have any resources available to help them. Programs like Share Meals and Swipe Out Hunger are designed for college students to give their leftovers or unused food products to other students in need. And, of course, more colleges and universities are opening their own food pantries. There are currently more than 700 higher institutions participating in the College and University Food Bank Alliance. Though increasing food availability for college students is a step in the right direction, fighting the social stigma attached to receiving benefits remains a challenge. According to a study on student food insecurity in the University of Florida, only 38 percent of food insecure students reported using the campus food pantry. Social stigma was cited as one of the top four reasons for this. 

Following Andrew Cuomo’s “No Student Goes Hungry Initiative,” CUNY campuses have provided their students with food resources, including on-campus food pantries and in-person assistance in applying for SNAP and WIC. However, more emphasis must be placed on raising awareness and fighting stigma. According to a report done by the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute, 17 percent of food insecure students at CUNY were aware that these resources were available to them. Nine percent of CUNY students reported actually using them. 

The Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center has previously recommended that CUNY schools further promote their resources through in-class announcements, physical marketing (such as flyers and booths), and social media campaigns. Developing technology, such as smartphone apps, can be another way to increase student participation in food assistance programs. Apps that allow students to quickly and privately check their SNAP eligibility or reserve appointments at campus food pantries can decrease the stigma some students feel when receiving assistance. 

Colleges must also ensure that students are not only getting enough food, but also enough fresh and healthy food. Hunter College, for example, has a partnership with GrowNYC that gives students access to a week’s worth of fresh, local produce at a subsidized price. Stony Brook University emphasizes nutritional balance by ensuring that all patrons of the campus food pantry receive at least one fruit, one vegetable, one protein source, and one starch per pantry bag. Stony Brook has also invested in a rooftop garden, which provides fresh produce during the summer. 

But while food pantries, food boxes, apps, and benefits are helpful, they are ultimately a band-aid solution. The real cost of college has changed; therefore federal funding and financial aid offered to students must also change. Initiatives from the state and federal level can open the door for more funding and resources to reach students. 

While a college degree is no longer a ticket to a middle class lifestyle, it does statistically increase your lifetime income. Let’s not make college students choose between eating breakfast and paying tuition. 

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