While some students fight to prevent the so-called Freshman 15, others spend time worrying about whether they'll be able to eat at all. It’s an irony at work on many college campuses: that even in the land of all-you-can-eat dining plans, there are students who can barely afford to buy food.
At the University of California, Irvine, Sanjanaa Ellur, a second-year student studying biology, is part of a growing population of students who can't afford all of the food she needs to succeed. Ellur's H4 visa means she isn't eligible for a Social Security Card, so she can't get a job or receive financial aid. Her family pays for her education out of pocket, and her four-person family, where her mother is the sole breadwinner, recently had to downsize to a one-bedroom apartment.
"Even though my mom tells me that we're OK, it kinda indirectly affects my mind, because I know we're not OK," Ellur told Fusion.
When she needs some food to get through the day–food she knows she can't afford on her own–Ellur goes to the on-campus food pantry to get a healthy bite. And she's far from alone. There were over 800 visits in the first three months after the pantry opened in October 2015. In past surveys, one in four UCI students identified as food insecure, according to statistics provided by theFood Pantry Initiative at Irvine. A 2016 study of all of the University of California campuses revealed that over 40% of UC students report either low or very low food security.
For these students, food security–having reliable access to affordable, healthy food– is constantly in jeopardy. A recent study of nearly 4,000 students in 12 states, released in October, found almost half of students faced some form of food insecurity in the last 30 days. The findings were worse for first generation college students and students of color, with more than half of each group reporting they experienced food insecurity.
Black students are almost 20% more likely than their white peers to report having either “low” or “very low” food security, in part because food security rates reflect poverty rates, James Dubick, an organizer with the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness, explained.
“The typical student who we looked at who was food insecure is working part-time, getting financial aid, they're reaching out for help from assistance programs, all while going to school full-time,” Dubick told Fusion. “And even though they're doing all the things that you'd want them to do, all the right things, they're still struggling to get by.”
This is yet another way the high cost of college, which has increased far more quickly than median family incomes, is taking a toll on students’ health, well-being, and success. According to a Fusion issues 2016 poll, 40% of 18 to 35-year-olds said they took out at least one loan to pay for school.
To help students who are are still struggling, the first food pantry by students and for students opened on Michigan State University's campus in 1993. Since then, the College and University Food Bank Alliance said their organization has grown to some 400 members around the country.
Along with the obvious threats to students' health and well-being that come from not having enough to eat, food insecurity also presented a major obstacle for students trying to succeed in the classroom. Students reported that they avoided buying textbooks, missed class, and even dropped courses because of their inability to access and afford food, and 81% of students surveyed in the multi-campus study said their hunger and housing problems led them to not perform as well academically as they could.
To help students in similar situations, Ellur helped create the University of California Irvine's Food Pantry, which provides non-perishable food to students on an honor system and is complemented by a free farmer's market.
"If I'm hungry and I go to class, I'm always thinking about when I'm going to eat just because my stomach's grumbling. I'm not going to concentrate on what's going on in class," Ellur explained. "That indirectly affects how I'm going to do academically."
Students and food advocates like Ellur know that ensuring food security for all students is going to take much more than just supplying their next meal–although that's definitely a start. There's little existing research about hunger on campus, particularly in terms of what can be done to help first-generation students and students of color.
But researchers do have some broad recommendations to address these bigger picture issues. Policymakers should focus on making college more affordable, starting by lowering tuition and the cost of textbooks and simplifying Free Application for Student Aid (FAFSA), the process of applying for federal financial aid. Rather than further cuts to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program funding–a move House Republicans are reportedly considering–the program should be expanded to low-income college students. Currently, students who are enrolled at least half-time are not eligible for food stamps unless they meet certain other requirements.
At Irvine, Ellur and her peers are advocating for a Bill of Rights for students across the University of California system, which would pave the way for a permanent food pantry space on their campus and encourage similar efforts on other campuses.
Because her visa prevents her from getting work, Ellur is focusing her energy on advocating for more resources on her campus. In her new capacity as food security commissioner, she also hopes to start a program where students can donate unused meal plan swipes to other students in need.
"We are continually working toward making UCI a completely food secure campus," Ellur wrote. "In 10 years, we should not have the need for this commission, these programs, or the pantry, because hunger is not an issue of charity, but an issue of justice."