When college students paying their own way have a financial hiccup, they have to make hard choices about how to spend their limited funds — and some turn to their food budget to close a gap.
Gina Higgins, a mechanical engineering student at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, has paid for school with a mix of scholarships, loans and part-time jobs. She planned every penny of her budget, cutting corners by shopping at discount grocery stores and commuting to campus.
Then, her car broke down and her family couldn’t help. Higgins needed her car to get to classes but couldn’t afford to pay for repairs on top of rent, utilities and food. She knew that she could only cut back on her food budget, so she turned to her school for help.
“It’s a stereotype for a reason that college students survive on ramen and free snacks from club meetings — we don’t tend to eat well because we can’t afford to eat well,” Higgins says.
Almost half of 86,000 students at two- and four-year institutions nationwide surveyed in fall 2018 by Temple University’s Hope Center for College, Community and Justice said they were food insecure — without reliable access to healthy food — at some point in the previous year. More than a third of those students said they cut the size of meals or skipped meals because they didn’t have enough money for food.
Getting help for food insecurity
Nearly 40% of college students are considered low-income, the biggest risk factor for food insecurity in college, according to a 2019 report by the Government Accountability Office.
Food insecurity isn’t only about lack of food; it’s also about quality, says Alicia Powers, community health coordinator at Auburn University and managing director of the school’s Hunger Solutions Institute.
“If you’re choosing it because it is the only thing you can afford, then we need to address that,” Powers says about instant ramen meals.
Resources at Higgins’ university got her through the crisis. She had help signing up for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program government benefits. She also received an emergency grant to cover the cost of car repairs and some meals at the dining hall.
Here are food resources that may be available for students in need.
Unused meal share programs
College meal share programs allow students to donate their unused meal credits, or swipes, to other students, who claim them for campus dining.
Meal share programs are often student-led efforts, aided in part by nonprofit organizations like Swipe Out Hunger and Share Meals.
In the 2018-19 school year, over 70% of students at the 80 colleges that Swipe Out Hunger serves reported less stress and anxiety about where they would get their next meal after receiving meal swipes. More than half who received swipes also reported higher class performance.
Campus food pantries
On-campus food pantries provide nonperishable items and some may offer fresh options like fruit, vegetables and dairy products as well as frozen food.
“Just because you’re low-income or struggling doesn’t mean you should only be able to eat food in packaged form or cans,” says Marissa Meyers, a senior department research associate for the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice.
The campus food pantry at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, partners with the Thurston County Food Bank to receive weekly deliveries of fresh produce and refrigerated items.
Use the College and University Food Bank Alliance’s search tool to find campus food pantries.
SNAP benefit enrollment
Students with part-time jobs may be eligible for SNAP benefits, which they can use to buy food at grocery store s, convenience stores and some farmers markets. But it can be difficult for students to qualify, since most will have to work about 20 hours a week to use the program.
Some colleges, like Portland State University in Oregon, bring farmers markets that accept SNAP benefits to campus.
Financial aid appeal
Students who don’t receive enough financial aid or who have a serious change to their financial situation midyear can appeal their aid offer. Students should be ready to provide their financial aid office with the amount they’ll need, details of their circumstances and relevant documentation.
A one-time emergency aid grant from a college can also help students bear the burden of their expenses — and that doesn’t just mean food. Insecurity with food often goes hand in hand with housing insecurity, says Mary Haskett, a psychology professor who led a food and housing security study at North Carolina State.
Students should visit their school’s financial aid or student affairs office.