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Food Security May Impact College Student Health, Academic Performance

When she began her sophomore year in 2015 at the University of Florida, Angela Rodriguez experienced a gap in paychecks between the summer and fall semesters while she changed part-time jobs. Without a source to buy food, Rodriguez worried about how she would eat during her first few days of class. Fortunately, her friends told her about the University of Florida (UF) Alan and Cathy Hitchcock Field & Fork Pantry on UF’s campus.

“I was very grateful for [the pantry],” Rodriguez says. During her first visit to the facility, she took corn, green beans, and rice. That was enough food to sustain her for about a week until her first paycheck arrived. She continued to use the pantry about four times per semester when finances were tight.

A new UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) study shows many students experience social stigma when they use their campus food pantry for food acquisition. To alleviate that, Rodriguez recommends going to the pantry with others, at least for the first time.

“If I went to the pantry by myself the first time, I would have felt exposed,” says Rodriguez, who was born in Columbia, Florida; grew up in Lake Mary, Florida; and graduated in May 2018 from UF with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. “But because I went with my friends who also needed the resource, I felt validated. The next time I went to the pantry, I didn’t think about how others would perceive me.”

Immediately after her first visit to the pantry, Rodriguez told her friends about the campus resource on social media. She has accompanied other students during their first visits to the pantry on multiple occasions. Rodriguez hopes her actions help students relate to their peers while gaining the sustenance they need.

Many college students across America find themselves in situations similar to the one Rodriguez faced, battling food insecurity—defined by the USDA as lacking access to adequate, healthful, and safe foods, or being unable to acquire acceptable food in socially acceptable ways.

For her master’s thesis, UF/IFAS College of Agricultural and Life Sciences graduate student Aseel El Zein looked at food insecurity and how it impacts several physical and mental health characteristics and academic performance in first-year students across eight geographically diverse US universities: UF, University of Tennessee, University of Maine, Syracuse University, West Virginia University, Kansas State University, Auburn University, and South Dakota State University.

About 19% of respondents were identified as food insecure, lacking consistent access to nutritious food, while another 25% experienced anxiety about food shortage. Through this work, El Zein found that food-insecure students are at a higher risk of experiencing stress, poor sleep quality, disordered eating behaviors, and overall lower grade point averages than students who are food secure.

El Zein’s research is published in the journal BMC Public Health.

“Today, many low-income and first-generation college students are pursuing higher education opportunities,” El Zein says. “Tuition, fees, and other costs associated with attending college exceed the financial means of many students. As a result, students have to prioritize their available budget for rent, tuition, and utilities, while using the remaining insufficient balance for food.”

Other factors such as the decreasing buying power of federal financial aid, restrictive eligibility criteria of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and limited financial management and cooking skills of college students may further increase their vulnerability to food insecurity, says El Zein, who conducted her study under the supervision of Anne Mathews, PhD, RDN, a UF/IFAS associate professor in the food science and human nutrition department.

“This situation will likely be exacerbated if it goes unnoticed, given the sociopolitical situation and the proposed budget cuts for the federal and state funding of student aid programs relative to the increasing cost of college,” El Zein says.

“It’s important to identify these students early,” Mathews says. “To best support academic and career success of students, university administrators should consider identifying students at risk of food insecurity upon admission and make every effort to connect them to appropriate resources.”

El Zein conducted a parallel study to better understand food insecurity issues among UF students. Published in the journal Nutrients, El Zein’s study found that more than 60% of food-insecure students reported never using the on-campus food pantry.

“Many students are hesitant to use an on-campus food pantry because of the stigma attached to its use or the sense that the food pantry is not intended for them,” says El Zein, who completed this research under the supervision of Karla Shelnutt, PhD, RD, an associate professor and extension nutrition specialist in the UF/IFAS family, youth, and community sciences department; Lisa House, PhD, a professor and chair of the food and resource economics department at UF; and Mathews.

These findings suggest the need for campuswide awareness campaigns and food assistance activities that assure food-insecure students they aren’t the only ones struggling.

In addition, other strategies can include rebranding of the pantry as a hub for support groups, campus kitchens, or hands-on cooking classes, followed by shifting the marketing messages to attract more students in need. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that food pantries alone don’t address the root causes of food insecurity and are unable to fully meet the nutritional needs of food-insecure students.

“The joke of the ‘starving student’ who can only afford eating ramen noodles masks the daily struggle for many of them,” El Zein says. “Pursuing a college education should not compete with the right to access nutritious food. Upstream national systems solutions are needed to combat student food poverty, and these should go beyond the boundaries of need-based food pantries.”

— Source: University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences