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Cash-strapped students are skipping meals at colleges

Niasia Starling, who is studying criminal justice at Nassau Community College in New York, shopped at the campus food pantry in April. Desiree Rios/New York Times

Faced with mounting debt and strapped for cash, many low-income college students across the country are skipping meals, buying cheap junk food, or devoting time that could be spent learning to searching for free food events, researchers say.

A national survey published this year by the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice found that 48 percent of students in two-year institutions and 41 percent of students at four-year institutions experienced food insecurity within the past month.

The problem of food insecurity — an inconsistent supply of nutritious food — on college campuses has garnered more awareness in recent years, and psychologists have started to take note.


Researchers have found that food insecurity hinders students’ well-being and academic performance — and it disproportionately affects low-income, first-generation, international, and other minority students.

Food insecurity is strongly correlated with mental health issues, said Yu-Wei Wang, research director at the University of Maryland Counseling Center and chairwoman of a symposium on food insecurity at this year’s American Psychological Association convention.

“Students who we interviewed have told us that because of malnutrition, they got so depressed that they were hospitalized,” Wang said Thursday. “Sometimes they are so hungry, they cannot focus on school.”

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Hungry students were also more likely to fail assignments and exams, withdraw from classes or schools, and have lower grades, Wang said in a statement from the APA.

Wang and her colleagues surveyed about 5,000 students at the University of Maryland-College Park and found that nearly 20 percent worried about being able to buy nutritious food. Thirteen percent could not afford balanced meals and stretched their dollars by buying cheap food, while 7 percent decreased the size of meals or skipped them altogether because they had run out of money.


Other coping strategies, Wang said, included smoking or napping to distract from the feeling of hunger.

Wang said food-insecure students also are more likely to be anxious, angry, and lonely than their peers who are not worried about how they are going to eat. “Some students did not use resources they are eligible for because they felt embarrassed, ashamed or believed that other students were in greater need,” Wang said.

University of California Santa Cruz psychology professor Heather Bullock and her colleagues, in a separate study presented at the symposium, also found that the stigma of food insecurity decreased students’ sense of self-worth and deterred them from accessing programs and services.

After Wang and her colleagues shared their research at the University of Maryland, faculty, staff, and students ran food drives and food insecurity destigmatizing campaigns, and also established emergency meal funds.

Wang noted that the number of campus food pantries across the country has grown exponentially in the past decade. In the Boston area, Bunker Hill Community College, Berklee College of Music, and Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology are among the colleges that have campus pantries, according to the College & University Food Bank Alliance.

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Harmony A. Reppond, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan and another panelist, called for systemic solutions.

“Pantries are addressing immediate needs. To sustain food security, campus food pantry directors cite the need to expand funding of existing policies at the state and federal levels, such as Pell Grants,” Reppond said in the statement.


The US Government Accountability Office also published a report on food insecurity.  It found that, in 2016, nearly 2 million at-risk students who may have been eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program did not particpate. The report recommended making it easier for students to understand and access food benefits.

Last month, Senator Elizabeth Warren and US Representive Al Lawson introduced the College Hunger Act of 2019, which aims to allow more college students to apply for SNAP benefits, among other proposals.

Anthony A. Jack, a Harvard Graduate School of Education professor who has studied food insecurity, said he is encouraged to see scholars from other disciplines such as psychology study the issue, because it will shed more light on both the prevalence and nature of the problem.

Jack pointed out that food insecurity afflicts not only community colleges, but also elite schools.

For instance, when Harvard dining halls closed during spring break, low-income students struggled to buy meals and endured “structural inequalities that keep students in second-class positions at first-class institutions,” Jack said.

“The fact of the matter is that undergraduate and graduate students, just like their elementary school peers, can be too hungry to learn,” Jack added. “That’s something that colleges must address.”

Sarah Wu can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @sarah_wu_.