April 2020 Issue

Food Insecurity on College Campuses
By Laura B. Frank, PhD, MPH, RDN, LDN
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 22, No. 4, P. 32

Millions of students don’t know where their next meal is coming from, but RDs are poised to help.

Did you know that millions of college students are food insecure? Due to socioeconomic factors1 and the exorbitant costs of higher education, many students these days are left without enough money to eat.

According to the USDA, 1 in 3 college students are food insecure.2 More specifically, of the 19.9 million students attending colleges and universities this year, more than 6.6 million often attempt to study on an empty stomach.3

Campus Food Insecurity Defined
Food insecurity, while it usually includes hunger, is defined as the broader socioeconomic and psychological situation of a person who isn’t sure where his or her next meal is coming from—a “lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life.”4

As higher education becomes increasingly expensive, food insecurity is rising on college campuses. In her book Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream, Sara Goldrick-Rab, PhD, documents the growing gap between family resources and the costs of college and living expenses. While family income has stagnated or declined, decreased government support for higher education has increased tuition costs, and financial aid hasn’t kept pace.

Financial aid is calculated based on tuition and room and board, but it doesn’t take into account other costs of living, which also have increased. As a result, after taking into account all financial aid, 75% of families pay at least 20% of their annual income for higher education. Students who barely are able to cover college costs often have to choose between buying textbooks or food.5

In a 2018 nationwide survey conducted by Temple University’s Hope Center for College, Community and Justice, 41% of students at four-year institutions and 48% at two-year institutions reported being food insecure in the 30 days preceding the survey—more than three times the rate of the general population.1,2

Even living on campus and having a meal plan doesn’t necessarily guarantee food security, as almost one-half of students had learned.6 One reason is that financially strapped students often will purchase the least expensive meal plan, later to discover it isn’t enough. Some students also may miss meals because of limited dining hall hours if they have off-campus commitments such as jobs and caring for families; student athletes, whose nutrient needs are greater, may miss meals due to practice and travel schedules.

Students who try to meet their financial needs by working often find the extra money isn’t enough to bridge the gap. About two-thirds of food-insecure students surveyed were employed, but 40% of students who were working more than 20 hours per week still were food insecure.2 Students at highest risk of food insecurity include those who are the first in their family to attend college, students of color, and Pell Grant recipients (ie, those with low family income).6 Others at high risk include veterans; people identifying as LGBTQ; students financially independent of parents or guardians; individuals older than 26, which is the age at which students lose parental health insurance coverage; those who are parents; students who have been in foster care; those with a disability; and students who have a history of a criminal conviction.2

The typical college student no longer is attending higher education immediately after high school and being supported financially by parents. Federal statistics show that about one-half of all undergraduate students in 2016 were financially independent from their parents, and 22% had dependent children (14% were single parents). Their average age was 26, and they were first enrolled at age 21. Sixty-four percent worked at least part time while enrolled, and one-quarter worked full time.7

Academic Performance
Food insecurity among students gravely affects academic performance. More than one-half of students who reported receiving Ds and Fs also identified as food insecure.2 Many students can’t afford to buy a required textbook (55%), miss classes (53%), and/or drop a class altogether (25%).6

Food-insecure students describe the anguish of trying to distract themselves from hunger pangs so they can focus on their studies. Psychosocial impacts include difficulty developing meaningful social relationships and feelings of sadness, resentment, frustration, hopelessness, and being undeserving of help.8

 Beyond this human toll, college food insecurity wastes financial resources. The United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports yearly federal government spending of more than $122 billion on aid to help students pay for higher education, which is wasted if college students drop out because they can’t afford food and other basic necessities.7 Students who don’t complete their degrees lose access to higher-paying jobs, but their debts remain.

Acknowledging Food Insecurity Not Enough
Higher education administrators generally are aware of student food insecurity, but that isn’t enough to help students in need. In a 2016–2017 study, 80% of higher education administrators acknowledged that food insecurity was a problem on their campuses, but 65% stated there was no official campuswide program to address it.9 The GAO reported that college responses to food insecurity include increasing awareness among faculty, staff, and students; classes to educate students about nutrition, cooking, and budgeting; creating food pantries and other methods of food provision; centralizing student services; offering emergency aid; and analyzing research data.7

The College & University Food Bank Alliance, a nationwide organization of higher education institutions that have either established or are planning a food pantry, now has more than 700 members.10 Unfortunately, many food-insecure students avoid using their campus food pantries. In one study, 70% of students were aware of their college’s food pantry, but only 38% of food-insecure students used it because of social stigma, insufficient information about pantry use policies, self-identity, and inconvenient hours.11

Students often think of food insecurity as a normal aspect of college life, believe the resources are meant for people who are “worse off” than they are, and feel shame about using the resources for themselves.12 Therefore, higher education institutions must continue to raise awareness of food insecurity and normalize student use of food assistance.

Another issue impeding students from using campus food pantries, which the GAO report documented, is the difficulty in accessing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.7 Currently, federal law restricts college students who are enrolled half time (as defined by their school) or more from receiving SNAP benefits, based on the premise that college students are financially supported by their parents. However, there are exceptions to this rule. Each state has the authority to define the criteria that qualify students for these exceptions. The GAO has found that the federal Food and Nutrition Service doesn’t share information with state SNAP agencies and colleges and universities that would enable students to qualify for SNAP benefits. As a result, 57% of potentially eligible students didn’t participate in SNAP in 2016, totaling approximately 1.8 million students.

The GAO report recommended that the Food and Nutrition Service simplify SNAP eligibility requirements and better inform states about them, and that colleges and universities should do more to learn about these requirements and assist students with applying for benefits.

Successful Programs at Colleges and Universities
Colleges and universities vary tremendously in the types and number of students in attendance and the resources they have available to address campus food insecurity. But many of them have successful programs in place that are improving students’ quality of life while they obtain their education and boosting their chances of a more prosperous future.

The following are some examples of such programs at colleges and universities.

West Chester University of Pennsylvania
A large state-affiliated university, West Chester University of Pennsylvania in West Chester, Pennsylvania, has an undergraduate enrollment of 14,567 and 17,005 students in total; 36% live in campus housing, and 64% live off campus.

Several years ago, student/faculty research by Mary Beth Gilboy, PhD, MPH, RDN, LDN, supported by a university grant, identified a 31.7% rate of student food insecurity. In 2016, the new university president adopted student food insecurity as a primary concern, conducting a food drive at his inauguration and establishing funding for a food pantry. As of 2019, the Resource Pantry had served 365 students with 1,406 visits and distributed 7,600 lbs of food. The Resource Pantry is funded by a national grant, allowing it to support a full-time AmeriCorps VISTA staffer, who supervises 10 work-study students and a social work intern who connect students with other resources.13

The pantry operates five days per week and is open one evening. It’s available to all students, but they must fill out an application to participate. Outside partners include the Chester County Food Bank and other community organizations, while internally, student organizations coordinate resource drives; donation bins are located in every campus building.

The pantry has its own website that features a virtual tour, which has received more than 25,000 views. In addition, pantry staff maintains a social media calendar and weekly newsletter for students, faculty, staff, and donors.13 According to faculty member Regina Subach, EdD, MA, RD, CSSD, LDN, students also are informed of leftover food from Foods Lab classes.

Food grown in the campus garden and leftover food from the university’s Camp Abilities PA @ WCU program is donated to the pantry. Nutrition students conduct food drives to source allergy-friendly foods, and campus food rescue activities contribute as part of sustainability initiatives.

Community College of Philadelphia
In contrast, Community College of Philadelphia has students seeking two-year degrees and continuing education. It enrolls approximately 26,000 students taking credit and noncredit courses, with nearly 13,000 full-time equivalent students, none of whom live on campus. More than one-half (60%) are aged 24 and younger, and the median age is 23; 72% are minority students.

Faculty member Laura Davidson, MS, RD, LDN, says that awareness of food insecurity has “increased exponentially” over the past few years, but, as early as 2013–2014, campus RDs, the Student Life Center, and Single Stop staff came together to form a Food Collaborative to address the issue. Single Stop (https://singlestopusa.org/about) is a national organization that operates at many colleges and universities to help students meet basic needs.

After assessing students’ needs, the staff connects them with health insurance information, food resources, free tax preparation, legal aid, financial education, childcare, utilities, cash, and other subsidies, as well as internal and external referrals, including helping them apply for SNAP and providing food vouchers—in fact, 2,500 were administered since 2017 at a value of $17,000.

Instead of the college providing a centralized pantry, students can pick up a small box of nonperishable foods at “snack racks,” sponsored by the Student Government Association, located at more than one dozen places around campus. Now in its second year, Grady’s Garden community garden, founded by the director of student life, grows produce that’s bagged up for students. In addition, the hospitality program on campus hosts events providing free meals to students; nutrition classes offer free food to students as part of promoting a healthier environment; and fundraising takes place to support food donations and emergency funds for students. These events and services are publicized on small screens across campus.

Each year just before Thanksgiving, the college donates more than $7,500 worth of grocery gift cards to students courtesy of generous outside funders. In addition, various faculty and staff members contribute each year to provide supermarket gift certificates for students and their families in need.14

“At [Community College of Philadelphia], we have incredible students who overcome multiple challenges daily in order to work toward their academic and career goals,” Davidson says. “We also have high levels of food insecurity in our student population. In both my capacity as a faculty person and a program director [of the health care studies program at the Community College of Philadelphia], I work to connect students to food resources. Students cannot learn optimally when poorly nourished. It is our business as educators to connect them to food resources.”

Pace University
Pace University is a private university in New York with an undergraduate enrollment of approximately 9,000 and total enrollment near 13,000; 42% live in campus housing.

The Pace food pantry, called Provisions, operates three days per month: on the first Tuesday of the month from 2 PM to 3 PM, the first Wednesday from 11 PM to 12 PM, and the first Friday from 12 PM to 1 PM. Participants receive a one-week disbursement of nonperishable foods, and, based on availability, fresh produce and/or dairy foods. Students complete an application to participate and swipe their student ID card whenever they visit the pantry so the university can track its usage.15

Provisions is coordinated by Tyler Kalaher for the Center for Community Action and Research at Pace. Christen Cupples Cooper, EdD, RDN, founding director and an assistant professor of nutrition and dietetics at Pace University, believes the food pantry is a lifesaver for students who struggle with affording healthful food.

“Thank goodness for such a great resource for our students, many of whom benefit from the pantry,” Cooper says. “I have been pleasantly surprised by how the students have embraced it.”

In addition to food distribution, Provisions, in partnership with the Food Bank for New York City, provides referrals for free tax preparation services, as well as assistance with SNAP enrollment. Provisions also supports a community garden and educational programs that teach basic nutrition and cooking skills.

Since the pantry opened on campus, attendance steadily has increased, recently attracting more than 200 participants. Publicity for Provisions seeks to create a stigma-free environment through the university’s radio station, WPAW.

La Salle University
La Salle University is a small private university in Philadelphia with an undergraduate enrollment of approximately 4,000 students and 1,300 graduate students; 46% live in campus housing, and 30% are first-generation college students.

The student food pantry, called The Basket, is open during free periods Monday through Thursday from 12:30 PM to 2 PM and Monday and Wednesday from 4:45 PM to 6:15 PM, and is available to any student with an ID. The Basket is located in the nutrition program’s Foods Lab that has the capacity to store fresh and frozen foods, nonperishable food, and personal care items, and accommodate classroom space used for nutrition education and cooking demonstrations for participants.

Funded by a grant from the Leo & Peggy Pierce Family Foundation, it employs a half-time graduate student as coordinator and two work-study students, and also engages multiple student volunteers in service learning. The Basket is coordinated by the author and is an agency partner to Philabundance, the local Feeding America affiliate. Through Philabundance, it also partners with the neighborhood Fresh Grocer supermarket, obtaining donations of baked goods, produce, dairy, and protein foods.

Since opening in August 2019, The Basket has procured and distributed more than 4,000 lbs of groceries in addition to donated items and food obtained from Philabundance, and has logged more than 1,000 student visits.

La Salle also operates a food rescue, called “Free Food on Campus!,” which notifies students of leftover food from catered campus events. Both The Basket and Free Food on Campus! communicate with students through e-mail and text notifications and have resource sites within the same online system the university uses to provide course materials to students.

Get Involved
Dietitians who are interested in fighting college hunger can start by reaching out to their local food banks and encouraging partnerships with colleges and universities. Feeding America and its local affiliates are a great place to start.4

Any dietitian who has ties to a college or university can raise awareness of food insecurity on campus. Dietitians who are parents of college students have an important voice. Find out what’s being done to support students; connect students with resources, offer to educate administrators, and lobby for services such as food pantries, enabling students to share unused meal “swipes” with needy students in campus dining halls, and Single Stop programs.

Dietetics faculty members can encourage their institutions to join the College & University Food Bank Alliance to support on-campus pantries.10 They also can engage students in research to document food insecurity and coordinate food drives and student volunteers. Moreover, RDs can work with the campus foodservice provider to make meals more accessible to low-income students.

For example, Cooper suggests “more affordable options for students who purchase a campus meal plan. It is a question of economics. If students want sushi, açaí, and specialty choices, they will need to pay more. If they can settle for fewer, but healthful, choices, we might be able to find some less expensive alternatives.”

Finally, for more long-term solutions to the problem, advocacy is a must. SNAP regulations must be changed so college students can obtain benefits easily, and more government dollars for higher education are needed to stem the high costs of tuition. As stated by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, “Registered dietitian nutritionists and nutrition and dietetics technicians, registered across all areas of practice have a central role in addressing food insecurity and are uniquely positioned to lead and support developing, implementing, and evaluating strategies to improve food security.”16

— Laura B. Frank, PhD, MPH, RDN, LDN, is an associate professor in the department of urban public health and nutrition at La Salle University. Her research expertise includes the assessment of college/university food insecurity and the development of campus-based interventions for food-insecure students that improve food access and facilitate healthful eating behavior.


1. Coleman-Jensen A, Rabbitt MP, Gregory CA, Singh A; US Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service. Household food security in the United States in 2017. https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/90023/err-256.pdf?v=0. Published September 2018.

2. Goldrick-Rab S, Baker-Smith C, Coca V, et al. College and university basic needs insecurity: a national #RealCollege survey report. https://hope4college.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/HOPE_realcollege_National_report_digital.pdf. Published April 2019. Accessed August 9, 2019.

3. Back to school statistics: college and university education: enrollment. National Center for Education Statistics website. https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=372#College_enrollment. Accessed January 3, 2020.

4. What is food insecurity? Feeding America website. https://hungerandhealth.feedingamerica.org/understand-food-insecurity/. Accessed August 18, 2019.

5. Goldrick-Rab S. Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press; 2016.

6. Dubick J, Mathews B, Cady C, et al. Hunger on campus: the challenge of food insecurity for college students. https://studentsagainsthunger.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Hunger_On_Campus.pdf. Published October 2016. Accessed August 19, 2019.

7. Unites States Government Accountability Office. Food insecurity: better information could help eligible college students access federal food assistance benefits. https://www.gao.gov/assets/700/696254.pdf. Published December 2018.

8. Meza M, Altman E, Martinez S, Leung CW. “It’s a feeling that one is not worth food”: a qualitative study exploring the psychosocial experience and academic consequences of food insecurity among college students. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2019;119(10):1713-1721.e1.

9. Berday-Sacks T, Pearlman A, Zimmerman C; Challah for Hunger. The Campus Hunger Project year 1 report. https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B6ZcCmdOHPn3X0xwLUM1clpxVzg/view. Accessed August 19, 2019.

10. About us. College & University Food Bank Alliance website. https://cufba.org/about-us/. Accessed August 19, 2019.

11. El Zein A, Mathews AE, House L, Shelnutt KP. Why are hungry college students not seeking help? Predictors of and barriers to using an on-campus food pantry. Nutrients. 2018;10(9):E1163.

12. Maynard MS, Meyer SB, Perlman CM, Kilpatrick SI. Experiences of food insecurity among undergraduate students: “you can’t starve yourself through school.” Can J Higher Educ. 2018;48(2):130-148.

13. West Chester University of Pennsylvania. Resource pantry annual report 2017-2018. https://www.wcupa.edu/_services/stu.slv/pantry/Resource%20Pantry%202017-2018%20Annual%20Report.pdf. Accessed January 1, 2020.

14. When students get hungry, snack rack to the rescue. Community College of Philadelphia website. https://www.ccp.edu/about-us/news/press-release/when-students-get-hungry-snack-rack-rescue. Published November 10, 2016. Accessed January 1, 2020.

15. Provisions Food Pantry @ Pace NYC. Pace University website. https://www.pace.edu/multicultural-affairs/provisions-food-pantry. Accessed January 1, 2020.

16. Holben DH, Marshall MB. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: food insecurity in the United States. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2017;117(12):1991-2002.