Starving Students: Moving Beyond the Cliché

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Written by Reto Dev

American institutions of higher education are beginning to face what is being called a crisis of hunger and housing insecurity in the ranks of their students.

Starving Students: Moving Beyond the Cliché

Researchers and university administrators call it “food insecurity.” Students call it “hunger.” A survey released on April 3 declares that more than one-third of undergraduates in the U.S. routinely and regularly deal with running out of food and being little less secure about the roofs over their heads.

The “starving student” has been a cultural cliché for centuries. With reference to students, “Stay hungry” is a motto that says something between “Don’t quit” and “Shoot higher.” The statistics paint a less romantic picture.

The new survey

Researchers from Temple University in the U.S. and the Wisconsin HOPE Lab surveyed students at 66 American colleges and universities and learned that 36% say they don’t have enough to eat or regularly have to skip meals -  or even eating at all for a day. A comparable number say they lack secure, steady housing.

The survey, said to be the first of its kind, has been picked up by the Washington Post, in an article by Caitlin Dewey headlined “The hidden crisis on college campuses: 36 percent of students don’t have enough to eat.” George Washington University, in D.C., was one of the universities that participated in the survey.

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With regard to food, the numbers are stark. One in ten community college students went without food for a day or more before responding to the survey. The proportion was 6% for university students.

Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of higher education policy at Temple University and a lead author of the study, reported that the survey included data from 43,000 students in all. The researchers used the measurement of hunger used by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The survey further reported that 46% of community college students and 35% of university students also report “housing insecurity.” Of those, 12% of community college respondents and 9% of the university counterparts have slept in places not intended for housing or “did not know from one day to the next where they would sleep.”

By food “insecurity,” the students meant that they did not have enough money to eat regularly, let alone healthfully. Further, they had to work one or more outside jobs to have enough money to make ends meet.

Goldrick-Rab concedes that measuring either insecurity is complicated and difficult, primarily because it relies on the feedback of the students themselves, some of whom are inhibited by economic shame. Her take-away was that the statistics were, if anything, underreported. In any case, they were in line with similar surveys conducted elsewhere in recent years.

Tuition alone at GWU last year was $53,000. Although its students overall may look to come from prosperous backgrounds, the Post interviewed two GWU students, Caleb Torres and Emma Montero.

“He’d stretch a can of SpaghettiOs over an entire day. Or he’d scout George Washington University campus for events that promised free lunch or snacks” Dewey wrote of Torres.

She quoted Montero, who works three jobs in addition to her studies, as saying, “I’m not going hungry per se, but there are days I’m just not going to eat. Today, I am kind of hesitant to buy food, because I have less than $100 and I need to do laundry. Do I want to do my laundry or do I want to eat today? That is the kind of question I’m dealing with.”

The other surveys

A study by the University of California found that 40% of its students reported food insecurity, and another conducted by four state universities in Illinois gave the proportion as 35%.

“Not a single university administrator wanted to acknowledge this was an issue five years ago,” Rachel Sumekh, the chief executive of Swipe Out Hunger, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit, commented to the Post. “But the numbers are amazing. It helps us make the case to universities that they need to do something about this.”

Wick Sloane, a professor and student advocate at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, added, “All the great hunger efforts underway are not even half a drop in an empty bucket given the scale of this crisis. All of us in higher ed know this.”

Amelia Parnell, the vice president for research and policy at the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, called the issues of food and housing insecurity “top-of-mind right now on many campuses. When we think about reasons students drop out, financial issues — like the ability to pay for food and housing — are one of them.”


Precipitating factors for rising food and housing insecurity include the fact that grant programs have allowed more low-income students to attend college. Once on site, many of those students find that their grants and scholarships are not enough to meet basic living needs.

Anthony Abraham Jack, an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, told the Post, “There has been an uptick in low-income students on campus, but there hasn’t been a corresponding change in university policy to welcome and prepare for these students.”

Adding to their difficulties, there is greater competition in society at large for low-paying jobs, and being students and not members of the fulltime work force makes many students ineligible for forms of federal assistance such as food stamps.

What is being done?

Universities have undertaken new efforts to alleviate the basic insecurities. Some schools, such as GWU and Michigan State University, have created on-campus “food pantries,” where students can obtain free foodstuffs. Others are partnering with non-profits to obtain unused food for re-distribution to students.

Still others have begun programs offering one-time grants for students meeting unexpected expenses. GWU’s Tim Miller, associate dean of students, told the Post, “We know for some students, even one small financial problem can throw them off course. That is serious. We want to help students overcome those issues.”

Student advocates are looking for more concrete forms of support, such as food stamps, from a U.S. government administration that is increasingly “welfare” averse. Current thinking is that financial-aid programs need to take into better account student needs beyond tuition and books.

With such crises striking in a nation as relatively prosperous as the U.S., consider the situation for university students in less prosperous countries and societies.

Sources/Reading: (the survey, complete text)