For Many College Students, Hunger Can ‘Make It Hard To Focus In Class’

Lambert here: The “system-wide solutions” presented here for the really insane problem of “food insecurity” in college are rather trivial. How about tuition and debt-free college? Maybe then there’d be a little money left over for food.

By Michelle Andrews, a Health policy reporter/columnist for Kaiser Health News. Originally published at Kaiser Health News.

As students enter college this fall, many will hunger for more than knowledge. Up to half of college students report that they were either not getting enough to eat or were worried about it, according to published studies.

“Food insecurity,” as it’s called, is most prevalent at community colleges, but it’s common at public and private four-year schools as well. Student activists and advocates in the education community have drawn attention to the problem in recent years, and the food pantries that have sprung up at hundreds of schools are perhaps the most visible sign.

Some schools are also using the Swipe Out Hunger program, which allows students to donate their unused meal plan vouchers, or swipes, to other students to use at campus dining halls or food pantries.

Those “free dining passes have given me chances to eat when I thought I wouldn’t be able to,” one student wrote to the program. “I used to go hungry and that would make it hard to focus in class or study. [The passes] really helped my studying and may have helped me get my GPA up.”

Pantries and food passes are good band-aids, but more system-wide solutions are needed, advocates say.

“If I’m sending my kid to college, I want more than a food pantry,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple University in Philadelphia, who founded the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice. “I want to know that they’re addressing high food prices on campus and taking steps to ensure no student goes hungry.”

Part of the disconnect may stem from a misperception about what today’s students are really like, said Katharine Broton, an assistant professor in educational policy and leadership studies at the University of Iowa who has published research on food and housing insecurity in colleges. Many of them don’t fit the profile of a “typical” student who attends a four-year institution full time and doesn’t have a job, Broton said. Rather, about 40 percent of students today are working in addition to going to school, and nearly 1 in 4 are parents.

The juggling act can be hard to maintain. “Most of the students, we find, are working and receiving financial aid, but still struggling with food insecurity,” Broton said.

Adding to the stress is the fact that while tuition and fees continue to rise, financial aid hasn’t kept pace. In the 2017-18 school year, after accounting for grant aid and tax benefits, full-time students at two-year colleges had to cover $8,070 in room and board on average, while those at four-year public institutions faced an average $14,940 in room, board, tuition and fees.

Anti-hunger advocates credit students with both sounding the alarm about hunger on campus and in some cases offering ingenious solutions.

Rachel Sumekh, who founded the Swipe Out Hunger program with friends at UCLA several years ago, said they wanted to do something useful with the unused credits from the meal plans that they were required to buy. The program now counts 48 schools as participants, and Sumekh said in the past year they’ve seen a “dramatic” increase in the number of colleges that are reaching out to them about getting involved.

The University of California-Berkeley is part of Swipes, as the program is known. It’s one element in a multipronged effort that targets students who may need extra support to meet their basic housing, food and other needs, said Ruben Canedo, a university employee who chairs the campus’s basic needs committee. (He also co-chairs a similar committee for all 10 UC campuses.)

According to a survey of Berkeley students, 38 percent of undergraduates and 23 percent of graduate students deal with food insecurity at some point during the academic year, Canedo said. The school targets particular types of students, including those who are first-generation college-goers, parents, low-income or LGBT.

Canedo said a key focus this fall will be to enroll eligible students in CalFresh, the California version of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.

Under federal rules, students generally must work at least 20 hours a week to qualify for SNAP, something many cannot manage. But states have flexibility to designate what counts as employment and training programs, said Elizabeth Lower-Basch, director of income and work supports at CLASP, an anti-poverty advocacy organization. In California, for example, students who participate in certain educational programs at school are eligible for CalFresh.

“That’s our first line of defense,” Canedo said. “Students are being awarded about $192 per month.”

For students who don’t qualify for CalFresh, the school sponsors a parallel food assistance program that also provides benefits.

There’s a food pantry that offers regular cooking demonstrations. But what Canedo said he’s particularly proud of is a 15-week nutritional science course that students can take that teaches them about healthy eating, prepping food, budgeting and grocery shopping, among other things. Some of those skills can help students learn to manage their money and food to get them through their time at school without running short.

Kaiser Health News is a nonprofit news service covering health issues. It is an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Charles Leseau

    The first thing that popped into my head for whatever reason was a little bit in Roald Dahl’s Dickensian little childhood autobiography, Boy.

    “At Prep School in those days, a parcel of tuck was sent once a week by anxious mothers to their ravenous little sons, and an average tuck-box would probably contain, at almost any time, half a home-made currant cake, a packet of squashed-fly biscuits, a couple of oranges, an apple, a banana, a pot of strawberry jam or Marmite, a bar of chocolate, a bag of Liquorice Allsorts, and a tin of Bassett’s lemonade powder. An English school in those days was purely a money-making business owned and operated by the Headmaster. It suited him, therefore, to give the boys as little food as possible himself and to encourage the parents in various cunning ways to feed their offspring by parcel post from home.
    ‘By all means, my dear Mrs Dahl, do send your boy some little treats now and again,’ he would say. ‘Perhaps a few oranges and apples once a week’ – fruit was very expensive – ‘and a nice currant cake, a large currant cake perhaps because small boys have large appetites, do they not, ha-ha-ha… Yes, yes, as often as you like. More than once a week if you wish…Of course he’ll be getting plenty of good food here, the best there is, but it never tastes quite the same as home cooking, does it? I’m sure you wouldn’t want him to be the only one who doesn’t get a lovely parcel from home every week.”

  2. Lindsay Berge

    This reminds me of the old joke.
    Q. What is the difference between graduate students and galley slaves?
    A. They fed galley slaves.

      1. JBird

        F888, it does indeed.

        When your college teacher comments about people eating peanut butter with crackers here, because that’s all that they can afford, well…

        Richest area in the richest state and some of us are using peanut as a staple feels wrong somehow.

        1. JBird

          And CalFresh’s income limits are under $15,440 per year. It is very easy to qualify for nothing.

  3. cocomaan

    If you want to help our your ulcer, look at these “non profit” institution’s 990’s. Millions of dollars in salary.

    1. JustWendy

      I am not sure I understand your point. I work for a state university and can assure you salaries across the board are humble.

      1. savedbyirony

        Maybe cocomaan was referring to the football and men’s basketball coaches salaries (not just the head coaches’), where some of the players/”student” athletes at times go hungry as well while the coaches and institutions make millions off of their names, images and work.

        1. JustWendy

          I can only fairly speak about the university for which I am employed. No one works at the school to become a millionaire. We are a caring bunch across the board and are concerned about the welfare of our students.

  4. ChrisAtRU

    Sane Person: “How about tuition and debt-free college? Maybe then there’d be a little money left over for food.”

    Brain Addled Centrist: But this won’t fix racism!*

    * Yet to hear from any Centrist what WILL actually FIX racism, but there you are.

    1. jrs

      It won’t fix homelessness. 1 in 5 Los Angeles community college students is homeless and 1 in 10 Cal State students are homeless.

      The thing is though not necessarily free community college is cheap anyway about $200 a class, and Cal State about 7k a year. One might be able to afford housing if they didn’t have this expense? ONLY if they could pay for housing with student loans. In other words Houston we might have much bigger problems.

      1. OpenThePodBayDoorsHAL

        Here’s my question: When?
        When will the overworked, distracted, and misinformed denizens of this great nation declare they have had enough?
        That the richest society on Earth adds to the coffers of its billionaires, let’s its corporations run offshore and tax-free, supplies unlimited munificence on its military death machine while its students starve, its populace moves further and further to financial precarity, its water and highway systems grind to a halt, its health care system generates infant mortality worse than Bulgaria.
        What exactly is the tipping point?

        1. ChrisAtRU

          We can do everything we need now, save for the rabid capitalists, their kelptocrat minders and the disingenuous economists who advocate broken, fallacious policy on their behalves. The tipping point is coming, though … and with it long overdue change.

      2. ChrisAtRU

        Say hello to my little friend, “United States Housing Authority” ??? ;-)

        All I’m saying is that we have the power to fix everything, and we can look back to many things that were part of FDR’s New Deal as guide posts to bigger and better solutions that are desperately needed today.

        From the FDR & Housing Legislation site (

        “The USHA was empowered to advance loans amounting to 90% of project costs, at low-interest and on 60-year terms. By the end of 1940, over 500 USHA projects were in progress or had been completed, with loan contracts of $691 million. The goal was to make the program self-sustainable through the collection of rents: one-half of rent from the tenants themselves, one-third paid by contributions from the Federal government; and one-sixth paid by annual contributions made by the localities themselves.”

        This where I believe Basic Income in tandem with a JG could provide a symbiotic relationship. You can give students a BI to (help) cover expenses beyond free tuition so they (and/or their families) could get affordable housing or subsidized university housing.


    2. Daniel F.

      I’d call this person* a “raging regressive leftist” instead of a centrist: the latter tends to do excessive navel-gazing while the former blames those racist white people for anything and everything.
      Then again, I was born in Europe, live in Europe, engage in live “politicking” in Europe, so my experiences with American politics come mostly from the internet.

      On topic: getting your first degree in my country is mostly free in state-funded colleges and universities. Mostly, because 1: the applicant needs to meet a minimum point** threshold, 2: the applicant needs to meet the institutions’s own threshold*** for that given department, 3: the applicant needs to rank high enough compared to the rest, because admissions are limited by nature, 4: the applicant needs to maintain a high enough GPA to stay in a state funded slot for their given department, and lastly, 5: there are some departments that receive no funding at all, and choosing one of those means paying by default.

      During my university years, I’ve never met anyone who had to starve, not even the poorest students. There were, and are, several different scholarship programs aside from the usual “get a real high GPA and you’ll receive a free price if you’re lucky” ones. Students can usually get a student job in our larger cities, and depending on the department, there are some other ways to earn some money: engineering and IT students often get picked by larger firms in their sophomore or senior year, and even if they don’t, there’s always someone in need of some help with those killer assignments.

      The problem here is housing. Dorm spaces are limited, and renting a room is relatively expensive costing somewhere around $500 USD per month in a country with a $22000 USD yearly median income (estimate by OECD). Getting a degree was widely regarded as a means of upward mobility by my father’s generation, but the years after the destruction of the Iron Curtain proved them wrong. And of course, they knew nothing about the Free Western States.

      *While I see a woman, these are the people who’d bite my face off for misgendering them. No such thing in continental Europe, for now.
      **There’s a minimum threshold of 260 points. Base points are calculated from high school grades, third and fourth year, and the high school diploma’s grades. Bonus points are awarded for state accredited language certificates, high placements on certain students’ competitions, and other degrees.
      ***Institutions apply their own thresholds based on the quantity and quality of their applicants.

      1. saneperson

        Germany has rejected the Ivy League business model in favor of the public good. Private universities in Germany barely compete with a system that is the product of a broad committment to public higher education. Private unis tend to serve parents who persist in believing that their kids are intellectually gifted despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Public universities are tuition free and provide quality education especially to students who are focused. Bachelor degrees are modelled on 6 semesters. The notion of spending several semesters to figure out what you want to do is mildly amusing to German parents who aren’t aware of tuition levels in the US. Those who are aware tend to be shocked once again by the cluelessness of the average American.

  5. Alex Cox

    When I was a graduate student at UCLA the food on campus was pretty cheap and the salads were sold by the size of the bowl, not by weight. We all became expert at piling those bowls high.

    When I taught at CU Boulder, the food on campus was expensive and the salads were weighed. A healthy salad could easily cost you eleven bucks, so I stopped eating campus food and took sandwiches to work instead.

    The increase in food prices seems to have parallelled the increase in fees over those forty years.

    However, I would make another observation: many young people, in my experience, when they are stressed or working hard, tend to forget to eat – irrespective of how well-off they are. And many of the students I taught had been addicted at high school to “attention deficit” drugs like Ritalin and Adderol, which, being forms of speed, are appetite-suppressants.

  6. Eureka Springs

    Ah yes. When splurging meant buying a dozen eggs to drop in ramen noodles and still miraculously paying one seventh of the phone bill before cutoff.

  7. Frobn

    One of our local charities has setting up a pantry with food from Feeding America for a state college in a rural area of Florida.

  8. wilroncanada

    Two of my daughters graduated from a university in a university town in Nova Scotia in the late1990s. That university set up its own food bank many years ago, to supplement the food banks set up by two churches and the town and county. Housing was still available (small town, student, faculty and school money spent locally), from shared apartments to rooming houses. In any sizable city in Canada or the US, those options for students may not now be available at all, because of greedy landlords, gentrification, and Air B’nb.

    On the other hand, during the 1930s, my father-in-law was living in Vancouver, a teenager. He frequently told us stories of the many poor students who lived on or just off the beaches in the western part of the city, in shanties of driftwood and scraps while attending university. Try that now, in any city.

    So, you see, today’s undergraduates are in many ways even worse off than “great depression” students. Their possible makeshift accommodations have been legislated away.

  9. Tyronius

    Robbing the future of our nation to pay the fatcats. What a wonderful way to run a country! If We the People- loosely defined as the other 90%- don’t step up and take our country back, we won’t have one to speak of in another decade.

  10. WheresOurTeddy

    All roads lead to GREED
    When will my people be FREED
    Soapbox ready, but I’ll save the SCREED

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