By Christel Perkins
Dr. Christel Perkins is Deputy Executive Director of the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities and Assistant Vice President at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities.
The pandemic has sparked roiling dislocations for millions of workers, leading to mass layoffs, reduced wages, and food insecurity. In all, the U.S. labor force is 10 million jobs below its pre-pandemic peak and more than 35 million are now living in households facing food insecurity.
The hardship is particularly acute on college campuses. Even before the pandemic, 45 percent of students on two- and four-year colleges reported facing food insecurity in the previous month. Black, Latinx, and Native American students are at even greater risk of facing food insecurity, which is defined as limited or uncertain access to adequate food. It’s not hard to see how a student wondering where their next meal will come from faces daunting obstacles to focusing on their studies, much less completing a degree. These inequalities in food security compound systemic economic disparities.
To better understand the challenge facing students during the pandemic, I led a team of university administrators as they interviewed hundreds of students, faculty, and staff on university campuses to identify barriers to food security and actions institutions and policymakers can take to address them. Our research outlines a host of action steps to address food insecurity. By spreading the word about student need and resources, partnering with the community, expanding resources beyond traditional pantries, and advancing public policy to meet students’ growing needs, colleges and policymakers can make immense progress in the fight against food insecurity on campus.
Start with demystifying who faces food insecurity. Many students feel stigma or guilt about gaining access to university resources addressing food insecurity. They choose to forgo critical resources for fear of being labeled poor by their peers or, worse, exhausting food resources for other students they believe are facing more dire circumstances. This underscores not just the importance of providing resources to students and promoting their availability, but also normalizing the use of university supports aimed at addressing food insecurity.
Engaging partners outside of the campus community is also key. College students are embedded within their communities, not just their campuses. They often work, volunteer, and raise families beyond the confines of campus. By teaming up with local partners, institutions can meet students where they are, multiply the resources available to those facing food insecurity, and help students connect with holistic resources meeting other basic needs such as housing. The University at Albany has taken this partnership approach with important results. Through a collaboration with its regional food bank and local pantries, it has provided more than 50,000 meals to students and community members in the last year alone.
Institutions can also take steps to address food insecurity beyond establishing food pantries. The University of Toledo, for example, is partnering with its food service provider to recover unused food from catered events on campus and redirect it to students using a meal-alert system that saved 12,000 pounds in food waste in its first year. What’s more, students’ food-related needs often extend to knowledge about nutrition and food preparation needed to achieve lasting food security. In addition to offering food and hygiene items, Morgan State University’s Food Resource Center provides cooking demonstrations, nutrition education, and transportation assistance to local grocery stores to help combat multiple barriers to food security. By providing holistic supports for those taking advantage of food resources, institutions can ensure students have not just enough to eat, but knowledge and resources that can help sustain their access to food, allowing them to focus more clearly on their academic work.
Policymakers have a key role in addressing food insecurity on campus, too. Before the pandemic, an estimated one in five college students were eligible for federal support through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), yet only 3 percent of students accessed them. To help address the surge in food insecurity among college students during the pandemic, Congress temporarily expanded SNAP eligibility, allowing more students the opportunity to access the program’s benefits. While added eligibility is in place through the end of the pandemic, permanent changes are needed. Increasing eligibility for federal programs and enhancing outreach efforts to students are two obvious areas for lawmakers to achieve progress in the fight against food insecurity.
The pandemic has created extraordinary need for millions across the United States. This need is particularly evident on college campuses, where students are sometimes left to choose between paying rent or having enough to eat. The challenges facing students are longstanding, but the pandemic has laid bare the scale of the challenge and the urgency of addressing it. Acting to address these obstacles is not just critical to meeting students’ immediate basic needs. It’s imperative to ultimately achieving a higher education system in which all students have the support they need to succeed.