New studies show that between 20 and 40 percent of college students don't have reliable access to food. Old attitudes about ramen in dorm rooms are finally giving way to real efforts to help them.
Two Swipe Out Hunger volunteers unload food from a truck. Photo courtesy Swipe Out Hunger
We don't know when exactly so many American college students started going hungry. But according to Ruben Canedo, a research and mobilization coordinator at UC Berkeley, by the time colleges and universities started to seriously study student food insecurity, it was already a much bigger problem than anyone had realized. In 2014, when Canedo was hired to help tackle hunger on UC college campuses, the first thing he did was look for national data on the problem. He said he found "very little." What was out there was sporadic, and metrics used varied from study to study.
So the UC system began to poll its students about food insecurity, and the results lined up with other reports on academic institutions, both in California and around the country, that have all cropped up in the last three years. Namely, that according to USDA guidelines, at least 20 percent and possibly over 40 percent of students are affected by food insecurity.
Some administrators have been shocked at the numbers, but they didn't surprise Rachel Sumekh, who has been working to alleviate student hunger since she was an undergraduate at UCLA in 2009. While there, she started an organization called Swipes for the Homeless, a program that collected students' unused meal plan points for both hungry UCLA students and the nearby homeless community. When students began giving away their meals, she realized that that demand among her fellow students was more than enough to absorb all those extra points. She renamed the organization Swipe Out Hunger, and has grown it into a nonprofit serving campuses all over the country.
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While the prevalence of student hunger has been old news for Sumekh as new research has emerged, interest in the problem among administrators, in her experience, has been new. "The difference that the research made was that it was being shared at an academic level. That was really valuable," she said. For example, Sara Goldrick-Rab, who researches food insecurity for the Wisconsin Hope Lab, which studies ways to make college more accessible, now includes resources for students experiencing food or housing insecurity directly on her class syllabi. A blog post she wrote has inspired other professors to do the same. Moves like that highlight the prevalence of student homelessness and hunger in a way that's harder for campus administrators to ignore.
Sumekh said that, in the past, it was mostly students themselves who reached out to Swipe Out Hunger to get involved. Now about half of those who get in touch are university administrators.
Tim Miller, the associate dean of students at George Washington University, said that once the university realized the seriousness of student hunger, they wanted to address the problem right away. After GWU administrators read research released last October by College and University Food Bank alliance, "we conducted research to better understand food insecurity within our own community," Miller said. As a result, GWU began a number of on-campus initiatives, including a food pantry and a swipe-donation program similar to Swipe Out Hunger. In the past few years, growing administrative acknowledgement of student hunger has also been reflected in student food pantries that are cropping up all over the country.
But Canedo said that many old difficulties in addressing campus hunger remain. For one, many still see some level of struggle among students as normal. "When we think about college, so many folks think about a starving student, an overworked student, an overburdened student," he told me. "When [campus administrators] engage with our work, they respond with a victim blaming approach. They say, 'look, I worked my way through college. Sure, I was hungry. You don't see me complaining. These students are so coddled they're not working hard enough.'"
He said that he begins negotiating with them by apologizing: "I say I'm really sorry that you had such a hard college experience and I really wish that you hadn't," he said, because otherwise "this conversation would be landing very differently for you." And then he points out that in the current economy, tuition and cost of living expenses are simply harder for students to cover than in the past, even for those who have jobs.
While it was once the "poorest of the poor" who dealt with student food insecurity on campus, "in this economy, it's the independent, the low income, the working class and the middle class [students] that are struggling, and you also have wealthy students that are being disenfranchised from their family because they are LGBT, because they choose a romantic partner that the family doesn't agree on," Canedo said. He noted that those students usually don't qualify for aid, either, meaning that hunger is impacting people across the socioeconomic spectrum.
Clare Cady, a director and co-founder of the College and University Food Bank Alliance, which helps launch and lobby for food banks at hundreds of campuses nationwide, was adamant that more intervention is necessary. "We can't food bank our way out of this crisis," she said.
Canedo said he wants the UC system to mobilize faster than it already has, too—but he's been able to launch several initiatives within the UC system, including a pantry and programs to help students budget and cook for themselves. After years spent advocating for food security, he was recently able to get the UC system's Office of the President involved in his initiatives. And this year, student-wide surveys at UC schools will include detailed questions about basic needs; the result, Canedo said, will be the largest and most specific study on the problem ever done.
In California, data about student food insecurity has already influenced the state legislature to make it easier for students to access government food assistance. And individual colleges around the country are starting initiatives to better understand and address student hunger, and help students get assistance both on and off campus.
For one UC Berkeley student, a combination of government and campus intervention is working. Esteban Vasquez entered his freshman year at Berkeley in 2014; he had struggled with food insecurity his whole life. But he connected with Canedo right away, and in this way became involved with the student pantry that had just opened, and learned how to apply for CalFresh, a California state program that helps low-income residents access food. The combination of these resources, and tips from student organizations on how to budget and cook for himself, were enough that now, "I pretty much say I'm food secure," Vasquez said. But it took a variety of solutions to help just one student, at what, thanks to Canedo, is now probably one of the best equipped universities out there. At other campuses across the country, there's plenty of work left to be done.