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America’s College Students Are Still Broke and Hungry as Hell

A whopping 71 percent of students surveyed reported having to alter their eating habits because of the low budget that they must live on while in school.
Hilary Pollack
Los Angeles, US
Photo via Flickr user Su-Lin

The old stereotype of a college student miserably eating ramen for a week straight, or even gnawing on a discarded pizza crust or digging into a tin of cat food in tough times, seems like a bit of a joke despite its resonance. Hell, a lot of us have been an 19-year-old with an empty bank account, sinking into a dilapidated fourth-hand couch and occasionally eating a dinner of spaghetti with ketchup and cut-up hot dogs, right? But most college students are patiently waiting to cash in on that end-of-the-rainbow dream job that will mysteriously materialize mere hours after graduation day, enabling them to enjoy a future of fine food. (Except, not so much.)


And that's if they can complete their degree in the first place. According to a new report, food security, or lack thereof, may be one of the major reasons why many students don't make it that far.

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A study from the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, which aims to improve opportunities and conditions for low- and moderate-income students in postsecondary education, has revealed some alarming statistics about college students' ability to feed themselves adequately. And the number of students who struggle in their programs because of food insecurity—or even leave school entirely—is increasing over time.

The Wisconsin HOPE Lab began the study in 2008, interviewing more than 3,000 Pell Grant recipients across the state of Wisconsin. Pell Grants are distributed as America's flagship grant system to help low-income students with the basic expenses associated with attending college. About two-thirds of recipients of these grants come from family environments where they were below 150 percent of the federal poverty line.

The Lab found that a whopping 71 percent of students who are on the grants reported having to alter their eating habits because of the low budget that they must live on while in school. More than a quarter of students—27 percent—said that they did not have enough money to buy adequate food, causing them to go hungry or cut meal sizes. And 7 percent of the students at two-year colleges (as well as 5 percent at four-year schools) even said that they had even gone without eating for an entire day because they were so broke.

pizza crusts

Photo via Flickr user dan4th

In the 1970s, when the Pell Grant system was created, the grants covered roughly 75 percent of the total costs of attending a public four-year college, according to The Conversation. But now, they cover only about 30 percent of costs.

And if you think this is only a phenomenon at state schools and not a thing in the Ivy League circuit, consider that an affiliated study conducted via Harvard University found similar problems for low-income students placed at elite universities. Harvard sociologist Anthony Jack interviewed students and found that some were left hungry or even homeless when dorms and dining halls closed over breaks, forcing these students to visit food pantries or seek other outside resources for help.

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The Wisconsin HOPE Lab is appealing to the National Commission on Hunger, as well as the federal government and individual schools, with suggestions for improving food security for college students, including increasing their eligibility for SNAP benefits (food stamps) or considering a National School Lunch program in public universities.

As a result of this pervasive issue, many colleges and universities have opened on-campus food pantries, including Michigan State University, Virginia Commonwealth University, and University of California, Davis. At VCU in Richmond, Virginia, the facility was opened after a survey revealed that 57 percent of the institution's students had gone without food at some point because they couldn't afford it.

At University of California, Santa Barbara, which has a similar system, student Tony Duong told CNN last November, "I don't know if I'd be able to stay in school without the food pantry."

As if all-nighters at college aren't hard enough, they're a hell of a lot worse when you can't even afford a meal of ramen or pizza.