Last month I posed the question of, “Is college food too good?” This month, the question turned to, “Is there enough food?”
Often when I speak about food insecurity, it’s in regard to students in K-12 schools. I routinely hear heartbreaking stories of children rushing to the cafeteria on a Monday morning for breakfast because it’s often the first real meal they’ve had since school lunch the Friday before.
But lately, I’m hearing more and more about another group of students struggling with food insecurity—college-aged adults.
A recent survey found that nearly half (48 percent) of college students reported that they lacked reliable access to sufficient quantities of affordable, nutritious food in the previous 30 days, and 22 percent reported “very low levels of food security that qualify them as hungry.” That latter figure constitutes a quarter of community college students and a fifth of students at four-year schools.
And a startling 43 percent of students who have meal plans at four-year colleges said they struggled with food insecurity.
We can go back and forth on the validity of the numbers—the report was conducted by the College and University Food Bank Alliance, the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness, the Student Government Resource Center and the Student Public Interest Research Groups, groups that certainly have a stake in the game. But the issue seems to be percolating to the forefront this year as many colleges are opening food pantries on campus and even allowing for SNAP purchases at c-stores.
This summer I asked a group of college operators if there was indeed a larger issue with food insecurity on campuses. The group admitted there was an issue on campus but said it wasn’t worse now than in previous years. Rather they said the narrative surrounding the hunger issue was better.
“I don't think it's anything new. I think that we're able to tell a narrative about it and I think that people are starting to come up with different solutions, and solutions and trends are kind of creating symbiotic relationships, a.k.a. sending ugly fruit to the food bank instead of trashing it. So there are things that you attack there,” said Eric Ernest, executive chef and associate director of purchasing, logistics & special projects at the University of Southern California.
It’s a fair point: Solutions, like UConn’s Tasty Waste lunch, come about because there is a problem. But has the problem grown vaster than operators are aware? If four in 10 students on meal plans say they struggle with food insecurity, are we doing enough? Or, as my colleague Mike Buzalka put it, is a college student claiming he’s food insecure because he can’t get pizza at midnight? (And speaking about solutions to problems, there’s an ATM that can fix this one too).
I’d love to hear what operators think. What are you doing to combat food insecurity on your campus, and just how pervasive a problem is it?