Jump to main content

Food insecurity on college campuses: Full bookcase, empty fridge

Empty fridge

Olivia Ellison
March 28, 2017

Like many college students, I have a full bookcase and an empty fridge.

The phrase “starving college student” has been tossed around for decades. But truly food insecure is not a phrase you would traditionally use to describe a college student. Studious? Young? Dedicated? Sure. But there are some serious emerging issues that come as a consequence of the rising cost of education.

Our society turns a blind eye, it seems, to the never-ending student loans and the empty bank accounts students face after paying for rent, tuition, books or even sending money home to support their family. These students may be working 20 to 40 hours a week but barely getting by. They are conditioned to think that at the end of their four years of hard work, it will all be worth it for that diploma, which for some is true. For others, the cost of higher education comes at a much higher price when they spend four or more years depriving themselves and find out, as so many did during the recession, that there is no job waiting.

The good news, if you're a high school student looking ahead to college and wondering what you'll eat, is this: Universities across the nation are developing and running programs to keep you fed. Read on to find out what they're doing and how you can benefit. 

The basics

By definition, food insecurity is “a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food,” according to the United States Department of Agriculture. Food insecurity may be confused with hunger; hunger is physiological condition that is often caused by food insecurity. 

This issue is broken down by the USDA into several categories: high food security, marginal food security, low food security and very low food security. The USDA defines each of these specifically. Low food insecurity may be the most common for struggling college students. It is defined as “reports of reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet. Little or no indication of reduced food intake.” This could be as simple as substituting macaroni and cheese for a balanced meal save a few dollars. In extreme circumstances, this could mean skipping meals and choosing to go hungry in order to keep the lights on.

Had to skip dinner because I only had a dollar something in my bank account and no cash. I only had canned vegetables in my cabinet and condiments in the fridge. Pay day wasn't for 3 more days so I tried to go to friends house [sic] to "hangout" and would eat whatever they offered.

Student, age 19, Arapahoe Community College

Food insecurity can be identified by many factors, including:

  • Worrying that food will run out
  • Purchasing food that goes bad too quickly and not being able to afford more
  • Eating less than desired in order to save it
  • Not eating for fear of running out of food
  • Not being able to afford balanced meals
  • Any of the above occurring longer than three months

A 2009 study by the University of Hawaii at Manoa raised the idea that food insecurity can be affected by other factors, such as inadequate budgeting skills and not preparing food to last. The study also found that about 20 percent of students were not getting appropriate nutrition or were skipping meals due to poverty.

Research on this topic is limited, particularly focusing on four-year university students or community college students experiencing food insecurity. This has not stopped researchers from American University from strengthening the argument that there is a distinct relationship between academic performance and food insecurity among college students.

Schools in action

Many universities across the country have already identified a need for resources to combat food insecurity on their campuses and have begun opening campus food pantries. On most such campuses, students are encouraged to self-identify as food insecure, no questions asked, and take free items from the food pantry. At the University of Northern Colorado, the pantry was opened a few years ago. Students attending the university are welcome to visit the food pantry up to twice a week, gathering five to 10 items for free throughout the week. The pantry offers food as well as hygiene products, soap and other household necessities.

Food pantries have been started and funded in a variety of ways: by students (Northern Arizona State University), student governments, the wife of a university president (Florida Gulf Coast University), university donors (California Polytechnic University San Luis Obispo), student organizations (Louisiana State University) and alumni (University of Puget Sound).

To take it a step further, universities have also started recommending nutritious recipes that can be made with food from the food pantry, and staff can assist students with other resources such as helping them find better employment opportunities through career centers.

Another resource universities are starting to offer is a meal donation program. Boise State University does not have a pantry, but the university is starting a meal share program. This will enable students to donate unused meal swipes at the end of the semester to be provided to students in need the next semester.

Baylor University does not specifically address food insecurity on campus, but resources are available to the community as part of the national Campus Kitchens Project. Baylor also holds the Baylor Free Farmers Market each semester, which provides baked goods and fresh produce to Baylor students.

Fort Lewis College is distinguished as a best-practices example for combating the issue of food insecurity. The college has involved the entire community of Durango, Colo., to support students. According to Rachel Landis, the coordinator of Fort Lewis College Environmental Center, student-led organizations provide a free hot meal weekly in the student union with the support of their dining services partner. The Center has a campus farm, which is accessible to students. Fort Lewis also provides the opportunity for students to work on a local farm for a day and then be sent home with fresh produce for their work. Students who qualify can learn to cook through a “Cooking Matters” program. Among other programs, Fort Lewis College also provide resources in several locations on campus so that if a student is hungry, someone will be able to help.

California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo's Jessica Darin, an expert on the issue of food insecurity among college students, says that resources for food insecurity don’t need any proper introduction. There is no reason to delay the delivery of much-needed resources by trying to assess the need on a campus. Instead, campuses should simply put the resource out there and see if it is used. This could be something as little as putting canned food out in a well-traveled path near the student union and seeing how many students take advantage of the offering. Taking a quote from the movie Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come." 

Feed me, please 

As a student in need, the hardest part can often be admitting the need and then doing something to fix it. Everyone needs food to live. Asking for help is not shameful; it is self-preservation.

If you or someone you know is going hungry because of their financial position while pursuing their education, then be a resource or take advantage of one.



Government aid can be found at your local social services or human services department offices. This can be in the form of food stamps, local community food pantries or a government-funded program for students in need.


Many churches contribute to food pantries or offer hot meals. Receiving food from a religious group may just be a question of a phone call to a local church that would be able to connect you with resources.


At this point, numerous universities have identified this issue and offer resources to help. Start with the division of Student Affairs, campus life, student activities or simply by typing “pantry” into the search bar of your campus’ website.


Although national organizations are primarily used for collecting data on this issue, they can be a great place to find resources. For example, the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness provides an entire page on its website dedicated to resources for students in need.


is graduating in December 2017 from UNC with a major in Exercise Science. She plans to earn her Ph.D. in Public Health. In the meantime, she spends time in the Biomechanics lab, participates in Fellowship of Christian Athletes, answers her friends' requests for advice and goes about 100 miles per hour!