College students and nutrition don’t always go together. Spend time on campus and sooner or later somebody will brag about a finals week fueled on cheap ramen, or weekends spent subsisting on leftover pizza. Similar diets in young schoolchildren would be cause for alarm; When they occur in college, outsiders and students alike tend to laugh them off or view poor nutrition as a college rite of passage. But there’s a more troubling side to that stale, pizza-fueled weekend.
Recent surveys find that as many as 41% of US college students report limited or uncertain access to food in the last 30 days. It’s a chronic problem that dates back years, fueled by rising tuition costs and — more recently — the rampant food inflation that’s hurting families and businesses across the US. The consequences are severe: Food-deprived college students exhibit poorer academic performance. Worse, the negative outcomes hit Black, first-generation and two-year college students hardest, widening racial and income inequalities that college should play a role in narrowing.
Last week, the Biden administration announced an initiative to address hunger and food insecurity. Some of the largest companies and philanthropies in the US signed on, with many taking a strong and understandable interest in nutrition for low-income families and school children. But college students received almost no attention. That’s a mistake, and one that private and public entities have the tools to address.
The cost of a meal plan at US colleges averaged $563 a month in 2021. Students already burdened by spiraling tuition debt may choose to skip taking on years of debt for food. But even those who elect to pay for a meal plan must often still find ways to pay for food on weekends, during breaks and in the midst of a late-night cram session. Part-time employment and work-study assignments offer some relief, but inflation is eroding those low-end wages, just as it’s eroding the wages of other low-income Americans.
The consequences for students can be severe. Food insecurity contributes to a range of negative psychological and health impacts. Numerous studies also have shown it contributes to poorer academic outcomes and reduced graduation rates. The impacts aren’t spread evenly across US college campuses. For example, last year researchers found that three-quarters of students at four historically Black college and universities reported some level of food insecurity. That far exceeds levels reported for White students. Working parents, lower-income students and students at community colleges also show higher levels of food insecurity.
Unfortunately, this isn’t a new problem. In 1993, students at Michigan State University responded to hunger on campus by establishing the country’s first student-run campus food pantry. They and other college students across the US obviously saw a pressing need. As of 2021, there were at least 352 campus food pantries serving thousands of undergraduate and graduate students. Most of the pantries are located at public institutions.
But expensive elite colleges aren’t immune. Harvard and Stanford — which both charge more than $50,000 a year for undergraduate tuition — also provide food pantries. The Harvard Crimson recently reported that Harvard’s pantries attract , among others, low-income students struggling with high rents, low pay and expensive Cambridge-area groceries.
Responsibility for addressing student food insecurity starts with colleges and universities. When an institution’s students struggle to secure nutrition, then it’s obligated to think seriously about what it’s asking financially of students, and what it’s capable of giving back. Providing and funding space for student-run food pantries should be the bare minimum. To ensure that these pantries operate in the most effective manners possible, higher education institutions should facilitate and, when possible, back partnerships with established food banks, distribution networks and restaurants.
College and universities can also empower students to help out classmates by establishing a “Swipe Out Hunger” program. The idea is simple: students can donate unwanted or unused meal “swipes” from their meal plans to a “swipe bank” that qualifying students can then access digitally (and without drawing attention to themselves). Swipe Out Hunger programs are already running with success on campuses across the US.
But campus-based aid isn’t sufficient or suitable for every student, especially older students and those with children. Colleges and universities seeking to address food insecurity should also help students access off-campus assistance programs, including the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP (previously known as food stamps). Meanwhile, Congress should work with the Biden administration on expanding eligibility for SNAP so that more students can access its benefits. Currently, students who are enrolled at least half-time in a higher-education institution aren’t eligible for SNAP unless they meet restrictive exemptions.
Finally, these efforts should move in parallel with some public introspection from college leaders. Does it make sense academically, financially or ethically to admit students who can’t afford both tuition and proper nutrition? There are no easy answers. Unfortunately, for millions of students it’s not just an academic question. As tuition and food prices spiral upward, it’s a daily reality.
More From Other Writers at Bloomberg Opinion:
Hunger and Obesity Are the Same Problem in the US: Faye Flam
Putin Shows Food Is Becoming the Ultimate Weapon: Hal Brands
To Tackle Hunger, We Need to Fix Food Subsidies: David Fickling
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Adam Minter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Asia, technology and the environment. He is author, most recently, of “Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale.”
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