The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Many students in need have jobs and financial aid but still go hungry

Samantha Arriozola sorts through donations for the Open Seat pantry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in this 2015 file photo. (M.P. King/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)

More than half of the students who reported experiencing hunger during their college years also held paying jobs, received financial aid, and many were enrolled in a meal plan, according to a new national survey.

The survey’s findings, released Wednesday, pose a challenge for higher education leaders because it demonstrates that the measures they rely on to ensure students are adequately fed often fall short.

“Food insecurity is a problem even for students who are employed, who have a meal plan or are receiving financial aid,” said Clare Cady, co-founder of the College and University Food Bank Alliance, one of the authors of the survey report. “The things that we assume would make them financially secure are not cutting it.”

GWU, joining national movement, opens a food pantry to feed students in need

The alliance teamed on the survey with the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness, the Student Government Resource Center and the Student Public Interest Research Groups.

Hunger is one aspect of a larger set of questions about college affordability that have entered the election-year political debate. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton is promoting a plan to help many students enroll at in-state public colleges without paying tuition. Republican nominee Donald Trump has said that colleges with large endowments should use more of those resources to lower tuition.

Whether those plans will yield any action after the election remains to be seen. But Wednesday’s report suggests that food insecurity is a significant problem for a range of colleges.

From March until May, the organizers of the survey canvassed students at eight community colleges and 26 four-year colleges in 12 states. Among the schools were seven campuses in the University of California system, as well as Michigan State, Virginia Commonwealth, Rutgers, Syracuse and Stony Brook universities. About 3,800 students responded to the survey.

Of those respondents, 26 percent reported “low food security,” meaning they faced challenges in obtaining quality food. Another 22 percent had “very low food security,” indicating that they were probably going hungry.

Here is a copy of the report:

The authors of the report acknowledged that the survey’s methodology — mainly face-to-face outreach through information tables set up on campus —  did not yield results that would reflect the nation’s student population at large.

But the findings raise the profile of an issue that has grown in recent years. Pantries have opened at hundreds of campuses, including George Washington University this fall, to distribute free food to those in need. Even at elite universities that pledge to meet full financial need, students sometimes discover that their aid packages don’t cover as many expenses as they hoped.

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The survey offered new insight into the complex problem of hunger on the nation’s campuses. Of about 1,800 students identified as “food insecure,” 64 percent reported that they also faced housing challenges and 15 percent reported that they had experienced homelessness.

Of the food-insecure students, 32 percent said hunger and housing issues had affected their education. Many did not buy a required textbook, or missed a class, or dropped a class. In addition:

  • Fifty-six percent of food-insecure students said they have a paying job, usually 10 or more hours a week.
  • Seventy-five percent of food-insecure students said they received financial aid such as grants or loans.
  • Forty-three percent of those surveyed who participated in a campus meal plan reported that they experienced food insecurity, often because their meal points ran out before the term was over.

Sara Goldrick-Rab, a sociologist at Temple University who has studied student hunger, wrote in a preface to the report that the findings help expose a “thin and failing safety net for undergraduates.”

Something must be done to help these students, she wrote. “At this point, we need to move beyond being surprised at the numbers and develop action plans.”

The report recommended, among other measures, expansion of campus pantries, initiatives to recover food unused at dining halls, shelters for homeless students, emergency grants to help those in sudden risk of dropping out and reduction of textbook expenses. It also said that federal policymakers should study food insecurity, simplify financial aid applications, and ease eligibility requirements for college students to participate in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.