Food Safety Nets Lacking for College Students

Child hunger receives a lot of attention because of the documented impact hunger can have on development, behavior and overall health. School meal programs can provide breakfast and lunch at no cost to eligible students and other programs may provide additional snacks or backpacks of food for weekends. Once students leave the K-12 system and move on to higher education the same types of supports are far less likely to exist.

The Wisconsin HOPE Lab surveyed 10 community colleges across the country in 2015, finding 20% of student respondents had gone entire days without eating a single meal. The HOPE Lab study also found that 31% of black students and 23% of Latino students experienced the worst levels of food insecurity, along with 19% of their non-Hispanic white peers. Campus surveys have found nearly 40% of undergraduate students in the City University of New York system are food insecure. About 13,000 students from Long Island attend CUNY schools.

Some colleges have noticed the issue and are taking action. As of July 5, 2016, there were 339 active member institutions of the College and University Food Bank Alliance. Colleges are setting up pantries and donation programs with local restaurants to distribute food to hunger college students. A college in California now accepts SNAP benefits on campus.  The CUNY system has started food pantries on several campuses to combat this growing trend.  Stony Brook University also has a pantry and the site manager noted that need is usually highest at the end of the semester when pre-paid meal plans run out. New York University is starting a food voucher program in the fall that would permit students to obtain meal vouchers six times a semester as a short-term solution if they are hungry and don’t have money, said John H. Beckman, a university spokesman. Some colleges, including N.Y.U., have adopted yet another approach, permitting students to donate “swipes” from their dining plans to others who can’t afford to eat. Many students aren’t eligible for SNAP benefits because of rules regarding the number of hours worked per week.

Unfortunately the problem has not been extensively been studied so little national data exists. California has introduced legislation that would encourage food pantries to work with college campuses to coordinate efforts. The perception of “ramen noodle eating college students” as part of the college experience is pervasive enough to keep many from taking this issue seriously.