New York City Food Insecurity Among College Students

by Alexina Cather, MPH
Testimony to the New York City Council: The Committee on General Welfare and The Committee on Higher Education

Testimony of Charles Platkin, Ph.D., J.D., M.P.H., Distinguished Lecturer, Hunter College, CUNY; Executive Director, Hunter College New York City Food Policy Center

Title of hearing: Oversight – Reducing Food Insecurity in New York City

Feb 14, 2019

Thank you to Chairperson Levin and the members of the Committee on General Welfare and to Chairperson Barron, and the members of the Committee on Higher Education for the opportunity to submit written and oral testimony regarding the reduction of food insecurity in New York City and, most specifically, among students at the City University of New York.  

I am providing this testimony on behalf of the Hunter College New York City Food Policy Center, of which I am the executive director. The Center was created in 2012 to develop collaborative, innovative and evidence-based solutions to preventing diet-related diseases, to promote healthy eating and to reduce food insecurity in New York City and other urban centers. The Center works with policy makers, community organizations, advocates and the public to create healthier, more sustainable food environments. We thank the City Council and the Speaker’s office for their support of our Center.

Facts and Data

The USDA defines food insecurity as the “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways,” and adds that food-insecure households report three specific conditions:

  1. Worrying whether their food will run out before they are able to buy more
  2. The food they bought didn’t last and they didn’t have money to get more
  3. They can’t afford to eat balanced meals.

This is different from hunger, which can be a consequence of food insecurity and refers to the physiological sensation, as opposed to the economic and social context associated with food insecurity. Individuals who are experiencing hunger may be experiencing food insecurity as well, however, hunger can also occur from missing a meal or meals due to reasons other than food insecurity.

While the definition of food insecurity may be clear to academics, politicians and government staffers, recent research by the Center indicates the need to improve our efforts to educate the public about what the term “food insecurity” means. A study reported by this Center in 2018 demonstrated that, even among New Yorkers who are food insecure, many struggle to define what that actually means – in fact more than two thirds of those surveyed could not define food insecurity correctly.

Why is this significant? Because, in order to design appropriate interventions with successful outcomes for the diverse populations we are trying to serve, everyone involved must have the same understanding of the terminology and problem. The existing differences in understanding (or lack thereof), especially among those who are food insecure, suggest the need for a greater emphasis on food policy education, including the establishment of common terminology.

Food insecurity is a public health issue across America, and New York City is no exception. More than 1.2 million New Yorkers are food insecure on some level,, and, not surprisingly, it is more prevalent among low-income households.

Nationwide College Food Insecurity Data

Recent studies have shown that 35 to 48 percent of college students in the U.S. experience food insecurity–,,,,, a higher percentage than that of the general population. Among the many possible reasons for this disparity is the fact that students are faced with competing financial obligations, including tuition, housing, educational expenses (e.g., textbooks, computers, lab equipment) and food. Unfortunately, some students are forced to  choose which of these expenses are most important., And once again, the need to make these choices disproportionately impacts low- and middle-class students, as well as people of color.6,7,16

CUNY Food Insecurity Data

About 60,000 CUNY undergraduates or 25 percent experience food insecurity.5 According to a report by CUNY colleagues, approximately 15 percent of our students reported that they had sometimes or often gone hungry in the past year because they lacked resources to buy food.5 Twenty-five percent had to skip a meal because they could not afford food, and almost 30 percent were sometimes or often unable to access balanced or nutritious food.

Problems Caused by Food Insecurity and Poor Eating Behaviors Among College Students

It should be noted that regardless of whether or not they are food insecure, college students generally have poor eating habits. In fact, nearly ninety-six percent do not eat the recommended five or more servings of fruits and vegetables per day. In addition, almost 60 percent of college students have reported above average to high levels of stress, and, as a result, were more likely to experience emotional eating, which can also cause poor eating habits.

Food insecurity (especially when combined with poor eating habits) can lead to malnutrition and obesity. ,, Food insecurity also impacts mental health, including increased feelings of shame and powerlessness, all leading to stress,18,24 anxiety and possibly depression.,, Additionally, food insecurity may adversely affect academic performance,17,, behavior and attention,  timeliness, attendance,27,29 student retention, and rates of graduation. While these facts and statistics apply to colleges and universities across the country, CUNY’s students have a unique profile that exacerbates many of these issues and concerns. Many come from immigrant families, and approximately 45 percent are the first in their family to go to college. In addition, more than two-thirds are caregivers. Sixty percent live in households earning less than $30,000 per year and 12 percent support children.32 More than half of CUNY students have paying jobs, and more than three-quarters reported using their earnings for living expenses.34 Furthermore, CUNY is the leading post-secondary destination for NYC public school graduates, many of whom were used to receiving free metrocards, free breakfast and free lunch–none of which are available to them on the college level, increasing students’ financial burden.  

Finally, research has documented that habits formed during the college years last a lifetime — making the need to resolve students’ food insecurity and help them establish healthy eating behaviors — all the more crucial.,,

Food Pantries and Food Assistance Programs on CUNY Campuses

CUNY campuses have various food assistance resources, including SNAP, WIC and food pantries. Nine percent of CUNY students reported using food assistance resources or services, and 17 percent of food insecure students at CUNY were aware of the food assistance resources available to them.5

Many food policy experts advocate for food pantries as a solution to food insecurity. And while research has shown that short-term emergency solutions such as food pantries may help, we need upstream solutions that address basic needs before the emergency arises.7

CUNY has increased awareness of food benefit and assistance programs by setting up Single Stop centers at eight campuses.5 However, this is an extremely important and potentially life-changing program that has not yet been given the attention or achieved the kind of awareness among students that it deserves.

On-Campus Food Pantries

The recent initiatives to create on-campus food pantries are an encouraging and important step toward improving students’ food security, however, we as public health advocates have learned that simply increasing food access does not necessarily improve healthy eating behaviors.,,  Researchers from the University of Florida, identified four main barriers to using an on-campus food pantry: (1) social stigma, (2) insufficient information on pantry-use policies, (3) self-identity, and (4) inconvenient hours. Furthermore, a systematic review of the nutritional quality of the food available in food pantries found that many were largely unable to support healthy diets due to the lack of perishable items. An additional study concluded that food security interventions and administrative policies should explore a new model for the traditional campus food pantry that would reduce social stigma concerns, be supported by information on pantry-use policies, be open at convenient hours and address nutritional quality.

Stigmatization dissuades 1 in 4 SNAP-eligible individuals nationwide from even applying for benefits. At college campuses there is a similar reaction to the use of food pantries. The aforementioned study found that stigma and feelings of embarrassment were the main impediments to students’ accessing the on-campus food pantry.45 The stigma associated with claiming benefits or using food pantries can come in the form of self-inflicted (negative self-characterization of one’s identity) or peer-inflicted (negative treatment by one’s community) stigmatization. Reducing the stigma associated with receiving food assistance and including it as part of a food policy and healthy eating education program may increase the use of these services on CUNY campuses. ,,

Recommendations, Solutions, Suggestions and Movement

For the reasons previously mentioned, and building upon the innovative programming already in place at CUNY campuses, the Center recommends the following:

  1. Provide additional education and promotion about SNAP, WIC, on-campus and local area food pantries, as well as Single Stop centers. Promotion should include but not be limited to in-class announcements, physical marketing materials and social media.
  2. Develop additional technology to aid students in finding food assistance, including tools to locate food pantries, and access healthy food both on campus and in their surrounding neighborhoods. We should also promote existing technology like the Plentiful app, which allows those experiencing food insecurity to make an appointment at a food pantry rather than waiting in line. This technology may help restore dignity and reduce stigma. Additionally, social media awareness campaigns should be used.
  3. Increase food policy awareness by offering an online course on food and food policy that will be available free of charge to all CUNY students, faculty and staff. This course is currently be developed by our food policy center. The Center believes that engaging students, faculty and staff to understand how food impacts our lives will increase mindfulness and the importance of this basic human right.
  4. Develop smartphone tools that can quickly determine a college student’s eligibility for SNAP. This reduces stigma while also saving students the trouble of having to go to an office just to determine if they’re eligible. The Center is currently exploring the development of such an app for CUNY students. This is particularly important because 57 percent of potentially eligible low-income college students with food insecurity risk factors did not participate in SNAP.
  5. Expanding the GrowNYC Fresh Food Box program to all CUNY students and campuses. Hunter College has an existing partnership with GrowNYC that allows students to receive fresh, local produce at the reduced and subsidized cost of just $14 for a week’s worth of food. Additionally, students who financially qualify receive vouchers to get the food box at no cost. We recommend expanding this program to all CUNY campuses, so students can easily access local, affordable vegetables and fruit.
  6. 24/7 Smart Pantry Vending Machine: The Center has partnered with the founder of Share Meals to develop technology that will convert a vending machine into a 24 hour/7 day a week Smart Pantry. Smart Pantries will have nutritious, pre-packaged meals as well as fresh fruit and vegetables available to anyone on campus. The smart, automated design of the pantry will ask students to take a food insecurity needs assessment that provides a code to food insecure students allowing them food at no cost. Since all students, food insecure and food secure must use the app to purchase food, receiving food from this vending machine reduces associated stigma. The goal is to pilot the first Smart Pantry machine at Hunter within the next eight months.
  7. Manageable, practical and usable guidelines and recommendations for food service on CUNY campuses incorporating food rescue and sustainability along with healthy food recommendations. And as many colleagues have suggested possibly forming an alliance similar to the Urban School Food Alliance to improvement procurement efforts of nutritious, affordable food for CUNY students.
  8. Working to create hydroponic or outdoor production gardens across CUNY campuses to increase students’ understanding of and experience with growing food. Produce may be taken home by students who are food insecure.
  9. Training food pantry managers and staffers about food policy, nutrition and healthy eating in order to improve participant interactions and education.

We at the Hunter College New York City Food Policy Center stand ready to help in any way we can to reduce food insecurity on CUNY campuses and throughout all of New York City. The Center and the City University of New York recognize that food insecurity is a serious and concerning issue on college campuses throughout New York City and beyond. We are eager to implement programs and form and build off existing partnerships to combat hunger, increase healthy food access and promote food justice.

The bottomline is we believe that affordable and accessible healthy food should be a basic human right.

For more information about the Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center, visit our website at www.nycfoodpolicy.org or email Dr. Charles Platkin at [email protected].

Thank you again for the opportunity to provide oral and written testimony

References

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