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Hunger on College Campuses

By: Eugenia Chow, Hunger Outreach Specialist, Hunger Free Oklahoma

Nationwide, millions of college students struggle with food insecurity, an issue that impacts health and decreases the chances of graduation. While research on food insecurity amongst college students is limited, it rarely exists in a vacuum. According to a recent study by the Wisconsin HOPE Lab,

  • 36% of college students attending a 4-year institution do not have reliable access to nutritious foods
  • 1 in 3 college students attending a 4-year institution are housing insecure
  • For community college students, 42% are food insecure and more than half experience housing insecurity

The reality is that the price of college has skyrocketed and the majority of post-secondary enrollees are nontraditional students – older, working, and/or caring for dependents. College students have to shoulder the price of a higher education while facing more financial challenges than ever before. Oftentimes, this forces students to make trade-offs such as deciding whether to purchase textbooks or to buy food. Even college students on scholarships or enrolled in a meal plan face the looming possibility of food insecurity.

Given the nuances around hunger, it is important for colleges to implement a wide range of solutions to tackle campus food insecurity. As of 2018, more than 650 colleges reported having an on-campus food pantry in response to student need. While pantries help provide immediate food relief, they are not the end-all solution to campus hunger. Factors such as a lack of awareness, social stigma, and fixed hours can prevent students from using a campus pantry. As a result, we are seeing a growth of interventions such as swipe programs, meal scholarships, food recovery programs, and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) outreach.

Many students are unaware that they may qualify for SNAP benefits. More than 3 million students were potentially eligible for food benefits in 2016, yet, less than half applied. To qualify for SNAP, college students must meet the following requirements:

  • Income and citizenship requirements
  • Enrolled half-time in a secondary education institution
  • Work at least 20 hours per week

However, many students can still be eligible under certain exemptions. Coordinating campus-level outreach can help students stretch their monthly budget. More and more universities have taken this a step further by accepting EBT at campus stores.

In Oklahoma, there are a number of colleges implementing creative hunger solutions. The University of Central Oklahoma (UCO) has an on-campus initiative using food recovery as a means of tackling student hunger. The project is unique to the state and initially started out as a class project of a UCO senior and food security advocate, Jillian Coats, who then collaborated with the university’s Food Recovery Network Chapter.

Essentially, student volunteers help collect pre-consumed food, primarily from UCO’s dining hall, and relocate the food to the campus pantry. Since the launch of the program in September 2018, more than 1,800 pounds of food have been recovered. With that, we’re thrilled to see the expansion of programs like UCO’s food recovery initiative, which not only reduces food waste but helps provide hunger relief.

In addition to the existing responsibilities and challenges of attending college, students should not have to worry about where their next meal is coming from. Fortunately, this issue has been gaining national attention, which creates opportunities for partnerships and paves the way for policy change.

To learn more about campus hunger and what you can do, please contact Eugenia Chow.

Working together for a hunger free Oklahoma.

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