Chew On This: A Look at Food Insecurity on College Campuses

Cassie Kearney

Middlebury College ‘22 – Psychology Major and Global Health Minor

We’ve all felt ravenous after skipping a meal for a test or a lab report, which was inevitably submitted five minutes before the deadline. We’ve all missed the open dining hall hours, sprinted to Proc, and sweat profusely just stepping inside the building only to watch the lights turn off at 8pm and the food stashed away for the night. Before we matriculated at Middlebury, most of our older relatives jokingly mentioned, “You’ll now be living off ramen and mac n’ cheese during late night studying.” 

What does food insecurity look like at college?

When we speak about hunger as an issue among college students, we are discussing food insecurity. Food insecurity is a condition that leads to hunger and inhibits the pursuit of an active, healthy life. It refers to the inability or lack of means to access nutritionally dense, culturally appropriate foods that meet an individual’s dietary needs and/or restrictions. 

This state of enduring limited access to food is majorly unaddressed and not well-recognized in the population of college students. Data below reveal that food insecurity at institutions is widespread and alarming, especially coupled with the lasting effects and ongoing state of the pandemic. Prior to COVID-19, a disheartening 30 percent of all college students surveyed encountered food insecurity at some point throughout their college careers. 

What does the data show?

The #RealCollege Survey – spearheaded by Temple University’s Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice – aims to fill gaps in existing studies of campus food insecurity. The 2020 survey featured over 195,000 students from 130 two-year colleges and 72 four-year colleges. Utilizing the USDA’s 18-question framework, around 38 percent of students in two-year colleges and 29 percent of students at four-year colleges reported experiencing food insecurity in the previous 30 days. Most importantly, it is essential to understand the intersectionality between food access and an individual’s racial and ethnic identification. The #RealCollege Survey emphasized jarring disparities: 75 percent of Indigenous, 70 percent of Black, and 70 percent of American Indian or Alaska Native students experienced food insecurity compared to 54 percent of White students.

Take a look at the survey findings for further breakdown that includes figures and visuals.

How do students respond to restricted food access?

Underfueling may lead to weakened academic performance with a lower GPA, lower attendance, and lower completion rates. The holistic well-being of students is undermined, possibly increasing the susceptibility for greater stress and depression. Lastly, food insecure students may select cheaper, processed foods to satisfy their hunger, resulting in the overconsumption of added sugars, refined grains, and elevated fat content.

Food @ Midd?

In the fall of 2019, students in the course Hunger, Food Security, and Food Sovereignty developed and distributed a questionnaire to the Middlebury student body surrounding food access and nutritional satisfaction on campus. They received 330 responses and found that 9.7% of participants either sometimes or often did not have enough to eat at Midd. About half of those students experienced food insecurity during the academic year, and half while on school breaks. Findings further demonstrated that 5.4% of respondents either often or sometimes worried that their food would run out before they had money to buy more while they were at home.

Sparking discussion and inspiring action

How is food insecurity presented among our own student body, and what can we do to combat it? The Middlebury Campus Hunger Project (CHP) seeks to eliminate food insecurity at the college. As one of the leaders of the group, I hope to stimulate conversation, educate students and administrators, and enact change in our close-knit community.

Leftovers: Concluding thoughts & questions

  • How has COVID-19 affected students’ nutritional needs and/or access to adequate food at Midd?
  • How can we effectively engage in difficult conversations with each other surrounding food insecurity? 
  • How can we provide more information and visibility about campus resources, especially over school breaks?
  • A must-read, powerful story: “I was a low-income college student. Classes weren’t the hard part.”

Finding support for food insecurity 

If you’re interested in speaking further and learning more about food insecurity, reach out to Cohort Leaders of Middlebury’s Campus Hunger Project at ckearney@middlebury.edu (Cassie Kearney ‘22) and aseepersaud@middlebury.edu (Amelia Seepersaud ‘24). The CHP instagram is @middCHP and the food resource guide they’ve created can be found here. If you feel you (or someone you know) might be experiencing food insecurity, you can reach out to your student life dean and/or dining services. For nutrition resources, the office of Health and Wellness Education can help.