When Paul Vaughn, an economics major, was in his third year at George Mason University, he decided to save money by moving off campus. He figured that skipping the basic campus meal plan, which costs $1,575 for 10 meals a week each semester, and buying his own food would make life easier.
But he had trouble affording the $50 a week he had budgeted for food and ended up having to get two jobs to pay for it. “Almost as bad as the hunger itself is the stress that you’re going to be hungry,” said Vaughn, 22, now in his fifth year at GMU. “I spend more time thinking ‘How am I going to make some money so I can go eat?’ and I focus on that when I should be doing homework or studying for a test.”
A problem known as “food insecurity” — a lack of nutritional food — is not typically associated with U.S. college students. But it is increasingly on the radar of administrators, who report seeing more hungry students, especially at schools that enroll a high percentage of youths who are from low-income families or are the first generation to attend college.
At the same time that higher education is seen as key to financial security, tuition and living expenses are rising astronomically, making it all the more tempting for students to cut corners on food.
“Between paying rent, paying utilities and then trying to buy food, that’s where we see the most insecurity because that’s the most flexible,” said Monica Gray, director of programs at the College Success Foundation-District of Columbia, which helps low-income high school students go to college.
As campuses look for solutions, the number of university food pantries has shot up, from four in 2008 to 121 today, according to the Michigan State University Student Food Bank, which has advised other campuses on starting them. Trinity Washington University in the District opened one in September, and the University of Maryland at College Park is looking into opening one.
In the fall, GMU started a voucher program, using donations from the campus food service and others, to provide food coupons to needy students. And this year, Feeding America, a national hunger-relief charity, will for the first time include in its quadrennial survey a breakdown of college students seeking food assistance.
Although there are no comprehensive nationwide surveys of student hunger, experts said, there is evidence that it is rising and may be much higher than the national average for all age groups.
A University of Oregon survey this year found that 59 percent of students at Western Oregon University had recently experienced food insecurity. The figure was 21 percent in a 2009 report on students at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 14.5 percent of U.S. households fall into that category, which is associated with lower academic achievement.
“Campuses across the country are starting to realize that there is that sector of people who don’t know where their next meal is coming from,” said Nate Smith-Tyge, director of the MSU Student Food Bank. “It’s not only a moral issue but also a curricular and academic issue.”
At College Park, where the most common meal plan costs $2,065 a semester, campus dietitian Jane Jakubczak has in the past two years seen a sharp rise in students who can’t afford proper nutrition — a shift she attributes to changing demographics.
“In the past, not everyone went to college,” she said. “Now our society is realizing that a college degree is really essential in terms of getting anywhere in your career. . . . A few have mentioned that they’re the first generation going to college, and that, mixed with the economy, I think it may just be that perfect storm of what’s going on.”
When students try to save by living off campus and eschewing the meal plan, they often find that budgeting for food can be difficult.
“If you have only $10 a day, how do you keep within that budget and make sure you’re getting your nutritional needs met?” asked Karen Gerlach, vice president for student affairs at Trinity, where an increasing number of students come from low-income households and some also support families.
Sometimes, Gerlach said, “it is a choice between whether they buy a book for class or they put food on the table for their family.”
Full-time students generally do not qualify for food stamps unless they are the sole supporters of a child younger than 12, said Alex Ashbrook, director of D.C. Hunger Solutions, an organization that seeks to reduce hunger among District residents.
“A lot of people tend to think that when you go to college you’re on the meal plan or the university is taking care of you, but for millions of students attending college, that is not the case . . . and with groceries rising and D.C. being a particularly expensive city, you’ll see that magnified,” she said.
Sometimes students don’t know about campus programs that offer help. But many are also reluctant to ask.
“We’ve had kids who’ve called us and said, ‘I haven’t eaten for two days,’ ” Gray said. “Often they’re pretty humiliated because it’s not an ask they want to make. It’s easier to talk about the cost of books or tuition.”
Joe Bradley, 22, another GMU student, couldn’t ask his parents for help. He moved out of his family’s house after a fight with his father and spent a semester homeless and hungry while eating friends’ leftovers and trying to keep up with school.
“Going to sleep hungry, it’s kind of a lonely feeling,” he said. “I felt weak a lot.” He eventually dropped out and now lives with his brother in Nevada.
Counting hungry students is hard because the issue is often shrouded in shame. On a Facebook page called GMU Confessions, an 18-year-old student with three part-time jobs confided anonymously last month that “I send my parents 50 dollars every month just so that they can manage to buy groceries, I have a 5 meal per week plan and I’m like REALLY REALLY hungry all the time.”
The student said she was considering suicide, prompting other students to offer her meals from their plans. Yara Mowafy, a senior there, said she had tried a couple of years ago to start a program that would redistribute unused meals from student plans to needy students, but the university had told her that it did not have the budget for it.
Instead, she and another student founded the voucher program, which has helped 12 students, with four or five more showing interest. “We expect more are out there,” Mowafy said, adding that the program is planning an ad campaign to spread awareness.
But the stigma remains. A 21-year-old student from Gray’s program who graduated from Ballou High School and is studying visual arts and graphic design at Penn State thought he would save money by moving off campus his junior year.
He works at Home Depot and cooks at home, with a grocery budget of $100 every three to four weeks. “Right now, I don’t have enough food in my house till the next paycheck,” he said.
His best friend sometimes treats him to meals, and when he is desperate, he borrows from relatives. But as the first in his family on track to graduate from college, he doesn’t like to ask.
“I like to provide for myself,” he said. “It’s the worst feeling you can think of to ask for somebody’s help in your time of struggle.”
Instead, he said, he plans to move back on campus next year.