It’s a combination of words we’ve come to know in higher education amidst the ongoing national debates about rising college costs… but what is it exactly and why is addressing it so important?
A Primer on Food Insecurity
Though often dismissed as the supposedly quintessential college experience of subsisting on ramen and mac n’ cheese, food insecurity is a real, measurable phenomena with harmful effects on student wellness and academic performance. As defined by researchers, food insecurity is the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe food, or the ability to acquire such food in a socially acceptable manner (Goldrick-Rab, Baker-Smith, Coca, Looker, & Williams, 2019). It can be a chronic problem that lasts throughout one’s college career or an acute issue brought on by an unexpected expense, such as a sudden medical bill. Typically measured with a validated USDA questionnaire, food insecurity studies assess questions like whether a student has run out of food and lacked money to buy more or whether they have regularly skipped meals (Goldrick-Rab, et al., 2019).
A lack of federal data has limited our understanding of the national scope of the problem; however, extensive studies coming out of The Hope Center have found that more than one-third of students surveyed were food insecure. While impacting students at every type of institution, food insecurity’s effects are often felt most by students of color, LGBTQ students, and students of lower socioeconomic status (Goldrick-Rab, et al., 2019).
These effects impact every facet of a student’s life.
Academically, food insecurity has been linked to lower student GPAs (Maroto, Snelling, & Linck, 2015). As students go without eating for an extended period, many students have reported finding it nearly impossible to study or focus in class (Allen & Alleman, 2019). Uncertainty about where one’s next meal is coming from can contribute to anxiety and depression (Goldrick-Rab, et al., 2019). Moreover, social stigma surrounding poverty meanwhile contributes to decreased social connectedness and campus engagement as students avoid activities that may out them as food insecure (Allen & Alleman, 2019).
Addressing Student Need
While national debates about the costs of college rage on, institutions across the country have begun to implement programs and services designed to support students experiencing food insecurity.
Food pantries are the most common solution being instituted, though what is available varies from campus to campus. Some schools stock only non-perishables while others offer fresh produce, toiletries, and school supplies to provide students in need with more comprehensive support.
Another popular approach, championed by organizations like Swipe Out Hunger, is to create a fund of meal swipes donated by students who have extra that can be accessed by their peers who are food insecure (Our Work, n.d.). As food insecurity can be brought on by an unexpected expense, or compounded by other basic needs insecurities (chiefly housing), some institutions have also begun to offer emergency grants and scholarships targeted to students in need. These approaches are by no means an exhaustive list of solutions that institutions are implementing as they look for the programs and services that best serve their students. Often, multiple approaches are used in tandem, in recognition of the fact that food insecurity is a complex problem for which there is no silver bullet.
Solutions at SCSU
St. Cloud State University (SCSU) is among those taking a multi-faceted approach to addressing food insecurity. Spearheading this effort is a committee led by Judith Siminoe, Special Advisor to the President; Sheila Moriarty, Associate Professor of Social Work; and Rhonda Huisman, Dean of the University Library. Charged by President Wacker with establishing an official campus food shelf, this group is also investigating ways to integrate campus systems so that students in need can receive targeted support to address their specific situation.
Chartwells, SCSU’s dining services partner, offers a meal swipe donation program to provide food insecure students with free meals at Garvey Commons. The program works by collecting donations from SCSU students, staff, and faculty into a shared pool that students in need can access. To learn when meals become available, students can register through the Dine on Campus App or, for students without a smartphone, through the Garvey Commons Office. For more details, click here.
SCSU students have also mobilized to fight food insecurity. They are engaged in outreach efforts to provide food along with information about community resources available to students. Students are also partnering with the university’s foundation to create an account with supplemental funds for students experiencing food insecurity.
Increasing access to affordable, nutritious food has been an area of passion for me ever since I first heard the term food desert while working for the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The major concern then was finding effective ways to provide access to fresh produce, meats, and dairy products to areas of the city without nearby grocery stores.
Engaging in similar work was partly behind my move to Minnesota. Along with friends, I started a small farm to grow heirloom vegetables and raise heritage livestock. For all the ups and downs of farm life, it was a tremendous learning experience.
I came to understand the true costs of producing quality food, the challenges of creating sustainability, and the difficulty of balancing affordable access with making a living.
To supplement our income over winter, I also worked at a local grocery store where I got a firsthand look at the commercial side of the food industry. I witnessed the waste built into the system. I saw those struggling to feed themselves and their family on a nonexistent budget, and I saw the compassion of a community dedicated to giving back to those in need.
It is with this experience guiding me that I now seek join others on campus in the complex task of supporting SCSU students. Like most of my colleagues in the SCSU higher education programs, I am actively working to serve the needs of my campus community and gaining skills that will prepare me to be a better practitioner, student advocate, and resource for new students on campus. I am grateful for the work that has already been done, and I am even more excited to embrace the challenges that lie ahead.
Allen, C. C. & Alleman, N. F. (2019). A private struggle at a private institution: Effects of student hunger on social and academic experiences. Journal of College Student Development, 60(1), 52-69.
Goldrick-Rab, S., Baker-Smith, C., Coca, V., Looker, V., & Williams, T. (2019). College and university basic needs insecurity: A national #realcollege survey report [PDF file]. The Hope Center. Retrieved from https://hope4college.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/HOPE_realcollege_National_report_digital.pdf
Maroto, M.E., Snelling, A., & Linck, H. (2015). Food insecurity among community college students: Prevalence and association with grade point average. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 39(6), 515-526.
Our Work. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.swipehunger.org/ourwork/#how-we-work