The Hidden Hunger Problem on Campus

Why it’s time to expand the National School Lunch Program to college.

By Sara Goldrick-Rab Katharine Broton

Tagged EducationPoverty

Scenes from American higher education:

“Do I work a shift to feed our kids, or do I come to school to try and better our lives? Doing papers until midnight is really hard when you are thinking, ‘How am I going to feed my kid in the morning?’” – Copeland, a mom attending Southern Maine Community College


“Almost as bad as the hunger itself is the stress that you’re going to be hungry. 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.” – Vaughn, an economics major at George Mason University


“We’ve had kids who’ve called us and said, ‘I haven’t eaten for two days.’ 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.” – Monica Gray, Director of the College Success Foundation in the District of Columbia

These are surely not stories that one might expect to hear from our college campuses. But we do hear them and they’re true. For decades, we’ve known that inadequate nutrition and hunger inhibit learning. Yet when it comes to higher education, where concern over low college graduation rates—especially at community colleges—dominates policy discussions, food insecurity is rarely addressed.

A recent Wisconsin HOPE Lab survey of ten community colleges across the nation indicated that 52 percent of the more than 4,300 students responding qualify as food insecure. At Southern Maine Community College, that figure is 31 percent. At the City University of New York, researchers estimate that at least 100,000 students have trouble getting enough food. The nonprofit Feeding America reports that 10 percent of their 46.5 million clients are college students, and 31 percent of those students say they’ve had to choose between paying for food and paying for education.

Oregon State University just became one of only a handful of colleges across the nation to participate in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), allowing students who receive SNAP benefits to purchase food at a market on campus. In Massachusetts, 25 of the state’s 28 public campuses are now assisting students in need of food assistance. There are more than 250 food pantries operating on college campuses around the country today whereas there were just a handful less than ten years ago, thanks in part to the efforts of the College and University Food Bank Alliance.

These are all steps in the right direction, but they are insufficient. Many undergraduates can’t access SNAP because they have difficulty meeting the program’s requirement that they work at least 20 hours per week while in college. Meanwhile, college food pantries provide inconsistent access to fresh food. As the numbers above demonstrate, food insecurity in higher education is still a problem.

This is a national crisis. Postsecondary education is a critical step in the ladder to economic security in the twenty-first century—a high-school degree simply doesn’t cut it anymore. That is why policymakers on both the left and the right are supporting efforts to ensure that every American can afford to enroll for at least two years of postsecondary education. Indeed, free community college efforts, promise programs, and dual enrollment opportunities all provide support to help students transition to college. But neither they nor the financial aid system ensure that students’ basic needs are met so that they can go to college ready to learn.

We propose a straightforward solution: Expand the National School Lunch Program to include community colleges.

The National School Lunch Program was introduced to K-12 education in 1946, several decades after private charities began providing food to hungry students. Policymakers grew concerned that hungry students performed worse than other students, and so called the program an “integral” part of the school system.

Today we have the same problem in higher education. The students who had access to meals in high school and become food insecure in college find themselves stuck, academically and socially. Moreover, students who were hungry in high school tend to also be hungry in college.

Many community colleges meet the same criteria as high-poverty K-12 schools: about half have student bodies that have at least 50 percent Pell Grant recipients. Most Pell recipients have family incomes at or below the current school lunch eligibility cutoff of 185 percent of the poverty line. The mechanisms in place for operating and delivering food to elementary, middle, and high school students can transfer to the community college setting. Whenever undergraduates are coming to school to attend class, they can receive a free, hot meal for lunch.

Hunger exists in higher education. We can argue its extent or severity, but malnutrition is a serious problem that affects educational attainment. We know how to address it. What remains now is a question of will.

Read more about EducationPoverty

Sara Goldrick-Rab is Professor of Educational Policy Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and Founding Director of the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, a translational research laboratory aimed at finding effective ways to make college more affordable.

Katharine Broton is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a researcher with the Wisconsin HOPE Lab.

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