You probably won’t be surprised to learn that food insecurity—a lack of access to sufficient food or food of a quality to meet basic nutritional needs—is a major problem in the United States. What may surprise you, however, is the high prevalence of food insecurity among U.S. college students. Graduate students, in particular, face some of the biggest challenges when it comes to having enough food. One recent study found that over one-third of U.S. college students dealing with food insecurity were grad students.
This guide takes a comprehensive look at food insecurity among college graduate students in the U.S. today: the various levels of food insecurity, the devastating impact it has, what can be done about it, and—most importantly of all—the resources available to help. So, if you’re a graduate student struggling to stay fed while pursuing your academic dream, keep reading to learn what you can do and where you can go for help.
Food Insecurity in Graduate School: Stats and Terms to Know
To gain a clearer understanding of what exactly food insecurity means for graduate students, let’s start with some basic statistics along with descriptions of the four, food security/insecurity, levels. First, though, it’s important to understand the difference between food insecurity and hunger. Food insecurity is a consistent lack of the nutritious food needed to be healthy and is caused by economic circumstances. Hunger, on the other hand, is simply the feeling a person has when they don’t have food.
Statistics for Food Insecurity in Grad School
- 29% of students at four-year colleges report experiencing food insecurity.
- 17.9% of graduate students experience high food insecurity level.
- 17.2% of graduate students with very high food insecurity level.
- 11.1% of food-insecure graduate students have used campus free food resources.
- 18.5% of food-insecure graduate students have used community food resources such as food pantries, food banks, and other free food sources.
- 7.4% of food-insecure graduate students have used federal food assistance programs.
What Does Food Insecurity Look Like?
Food insecurity has four levels. Here’s how the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service defines them:
High Food Security
Households had no problems or anxiety about consistently accessing adequate food. In the case of graduate students, they were able to obtain quality, nutritious food. Graduate students tend to prepare more meals themselves than undergraduate students and eat more healthful foods—something that’s easier to do with no food-security challenges.
Marginal Food Security
Households had problems at times, or anxiety about, accessing adequate food, but the quality, variety, and quantity of their food intake was not substantially reduced. Marginal food security is often described as having one or two incidents of lack of adequate food or anxiety about the possibility of not having enough to eat. Grad students falling under this level are still generally considered to be food secure.
Low Food Security
Households reduced the quality, variety, and desirability of their diets, but the quantity of food intake and normal eating patterns weren’t substantially disrupted. About half of graduate students who are considered food insecure fall under the low food security group. The main concern at this level is food quality as opposed to quantity. Likely a sign of greater maturity, graduate students with food insecurity have been found to make greater use of services like food pantries as compared to undergraduates.
Very Low Food Security
At times during the year, eating patterns of one or more household members were disrupted and food intake reduced because the household lacked money and other resources for food. Both the quality and quantity of food is at issue for graduate students with very low food security. A study published in Public Health Nutrition found that grad students with very low food security reported significantly greater levels of stress, anxiety, and depression than those with high or low food security.
15 Resources for Graduate Students Experiencing Food Insecurity
The most immediate way for graduate students to combat food inadequacy is through direct access to free and low-cost food or by obtaining money to purchase food. The specific food resources available to grad students will depend on the student’s particular school and community (larger schools and communities tend to have more abundant resources) and individual financial and living circumstances. Here is a list of some of the most common food programs and services graduate students can tap into:
- Campus food pantries: Quickly becoming a common site at colleges of all sizes, campus food pantries are often the first line of defense for students in immediate need of food. Nonperishables (such as canned fruits, vegetables, and meats) are the foundational offerings, but many pantries also provide fresh fruits and vegetables and other perishable items such as nuts and grains. In most cases, students can obtain food without being required to prove need but are asked to take only what they will actually consume within a short time period. Campus food pantries depend on food and money donations from school staff, student groups, local charities, and private individuals.
- Guest meals and meal donations: This is the simple act of one person paying for the meal of another, typically at a campus dining hall or cafeteria. Money for the meal may be provided through donations to a meal purchase program or may come directly out of the pocket of a fellow student at the time of the meal purchase.
- Meal swipes: Another form of a meal donation, meal swipes refer to college meal plans in which students prepay for a given number of meals and swipe their school ID when they enter the dining hall. Meal swipe donations may be made by simply swiping an extra meal for someone in need when entering the hall or through a meal swipe donation program such as Swipe Out Hunger.
- Emergency aid programs: Colleges often provide emergency aid to students who have immediate food-insecurity challenges. This aid may take the form of money, loans, or direct food donations. An example is the Emergency Aid assistance program at the University of Washington.
- Community food pantries: Like on-campus pantries, community food pantries are food distribution centers that directly serve local residents. They’re typically operated by nonprofit organizations and churches. Food donations may be made directly to the pantry or through distributions from food banks (larger nonprofits that collect money and food and recover unwanted food).
- Community kitchens: Sometimes referred to as soup kitchens, community kitchens provide warm, freshly cooked meals that are typically eaten on the facility’s premises. Often thought to be exclusively for the homeless, community kitchens serve anyone and everyone, no questions asked.
- Emergency assistance: Some charitable organizations, like the Salvation Army and United Way, may be able to provide emergency help to those in immediate need. Assistance of this kind is often designated for nonfood expenses such as rent, utilities, or transportation, but that help can free up money for food.
- Farmers markets: You probably know what a farmer’s market is. What you may not know is that local farmers markets typically take payment from food assistance programs like SNAP and WIC. Some have “double your bucks” programs that allow you to buy twice as much, giving students using SNAP and WIC greater access to fresh food. Other farmers markets offer discounts to students enrolled at local colleges and universities.
- SNAP: The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is a federally administered program that provides nutrition assistance to low-income families and individuals meeting specific eligibility requirements. Recipients are issued an EBT card that is loaded automatically each month with funds that they can use to purchase certain types of food at authorized markets and retailers. Find out how to apply for SNAP benefits at Benefits.gov.
- WIC: The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, commonly known as WIC, is a U.S. Department of Agriculture program that provides funding to states for healthcare and nutrition services for women, infants, and children meeting eligibility requirements. For information on applying for benefits, visit WIC How to Apply.
- Feeding America: Feeding America is a nonprofit network of over 200 larger food banks that work with more than 60,000 smaller food pantries and meal programs throughout the United States. The food bank search engine allows users to locate food banks; once you’ve located your closest food bank, go to their website to find nearby food pantries and free food distribution events and to apply for national food assistance programs like SNAP and WIC.
- Full Cart: Billing itself as America’s first virtual food bank, Full Cart offers one-time food assistance to individuals facing financial insecurity or who are unable to find sufficient food in their local area. Visitors to the site register to receive a Full Cart food box delivered directly to their door. Full Cart is a program of U.S. Hunger, a nonprofit dedicated to providing food to people in need and eliminating the root causes of food insecurity.
- State Anti-Hunger Organizations: The State Anti-Hunger Organizations webpage provides a state-by-state list of (and links to) anti-hunger organizations located throughout the U.S. The information is from the Food Research & Action Center, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the health, nutrition, and well-being of those challenged by poverty-related hunger.
- Swipe Out Hunger: Swipe Out Hunger is about more than just meal swipes. The organization also works to eliminate hunger for college students through on-campus programs, political advocacy, and community-building efforts. (Read on for an interview with the director of Swipe Out Hunger.)
- USDA Local Food Directories: This Local Food Directories search engine from the U.S. Department of Agriculture allows visitors to locate area food providers such as farmers markets, on-farm markets, agritourism, and other community-supported agriculture. Filter your search results to identify providers that accept payment from food assistance programs like SNAP and WIC or who will let you provide volunteer work in return for food.
Food Insecurity: Who is Most at Risk?
Along with the many causes of food insecurity for grad students, a number of demographic groups within the grad student community are more likely to be at risk for food insecurity than others. Below are descriptions of six of the most common.
Several studies have concluded that college students from racial or ethnic minority groups are much more likely to be at risk of food insecurity than their Caucasian counterparts. For example, one study found that 62.5% of African American college students had reported food insecurity, as compared to 32.26% of Caucasian students. The study further concluded that the odds of being food insecure were 3.5 times greater for African American students compared with Caucasian students. Another study found that food-insecure college students were substantially more likely to have a minority background than food-secure students.
It’s logical that low-income students would likely be at a higher risk of food scarcity than students with higher incomes. One study noted that the growing population of low-income college students over the last decade is one of the reasons for the significant increase in food insecurity among college students.
Food insecurity and housing insecurity often go hand in hand. A 2019 #RealCollege survey of students at 56 four-year colleges throughout the U.S. found that 20% had been both food insecure and housing insecure during the previous year, and 9% had been both food insecure and homeless during the same period.
Students With Children
Another group with higher risk of inadequate food resources is students who are parents. According to the same #RealCollege survey, 53% of college students raising children had experienced food insecurity, as opposed to 37% of students who are not parents. In addition, the survey found that parenting college students had experienced housing insecurity and homelessness at rates of 68% and 17%, respectively.
Numerous studies have concluded that LGBTQ college students are more likely to experience food insecurity and other challenges than non-LGBTQ students. As one study from Current Developments in Nutrition concluded, “Graduate student food insecurity increased significantly during the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly among international, minority, and LGBTQ+ students, and coincided with lower likelihood of purchasing nutritious foods.”
1st Generation Students
One of the more surprising findings of many studies on food insecurity in college is that students who are first in their families to go to college are substantially more at risk of not having enough food than continuing-generation students. One study in the Journal of Appalachian Studies surveyed students at Appalachian University and found that the prevalence of food insecurity among first-generation students was 15.7% higher than for continuing-generation students. The study further discovered that first-generation black students were a disturbingly 296% more likely to be food insecure than white students.
Impact of Food Insecurity on Graduate Student Performance
As mentioned earlier, approximately one-third of all college students are impacted by food-insecurity issues. But what does that impact look like? The consequences are broader than you might think, and many can be serious and long-lasting. Here’s a look as some of the most common ways food insecurity impacts college students:
- Food insecurity may lead to students falling behind or into the achievement gap. “Achievement gap” is a term widely used to refer to disparities in education achievement between groups of students, particularly minority or disadvantaged students and more advantaged white students. Minority and disadvantaged students have been found to be more adversely affected by food insecurity, contributing to lower grade point averages, student retention rates, and graduate rates. More on retention and graduate rates below.
- Food insecurity may lead to higher levels of stress, anxiety, or depression. In a report titled “Food Insecurity: Is it a Threat to University Students’ Well-Being and Success?” from the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, university students in Malaysia indicating food insecurity issues suffered from higher levels of stress, anxiety, and depression compared with students without reported food insecurity issues. The report also concluded that “the large percentage of food insecurity in this study suggests that it is the main concern currently faced by students.”
- Food insecurity may impact well-being due to stigma. The stigma that comes with food insecurity leads to students not reaching out for help. Several studies have indicated this, including those from DePauw University and Academic Impressions. Another study, this one from the University of Rhode Island, found that the majority of students with food insecurity “reported feeling ashamed and embarrassed due to their inability to provide a consistent source of meals.”
- Lower quality of nutrition can lead to physical issues. Along with its impact on mental and emotional health, poor nutrition results in negative physical health as well. A number of scientific reports have identified a range of physical health issues associated with food insecurity and insufficient nutrition, including chronic illnesses such as asthma and anemia, increased rates of diabetes and hypertension, and more.
- Students challenged by food insecurity are less likely to stay in college and graduate. Food insecurity is among the reasons identified for students to drop out of college. For example, one study from Johns Hopkins University found that food insecurity is linked to lower graduation rates and lower chances of obtaining a bachelor’s degree. Food insecurity may undermine academic outcomes such as retention, grade point averages, and on-time graduation, according to a study from the American Journal of Health Promotion.
- Sleep patterns may be disrupted. Sleep quality is a major factor in good physical and mental health. A number of studies (including this one from Public Health Nutrition) have linked college student food insecurity with degradation of sleep quality. The list of health problems that can result from lack of sleep is extensive. Big issues include heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, depression, memory and mood problems, immune system damage, and higher risk of accident and injury. The negative impact sleep loss can have on a college student’s ability to concentrate on their studies is substantial.
- Inability to purchase textbooks and other necessities for school and life. Food-security issues are money issues. The simple fact is that students with food-insecurity challenges often have to choose between eating a meal and paying for basic college expenseslike textbooks, supplies, etc., not to mention basic living expenses like transportation, insurance, health care, and even rent.
- Mounting student debt. For college students, food insecurity is inextricably linked with student debt. One study concluded that, “Students with debt and experiences of food insecurity were more likely to consider or experience academic disruptions.” In addition, according to this study from the International Journal of Consumer Studies, food insecurity experienced by students during their college years can create or worsen reliance on forms of financial support such as financial aid, loans, and credit cards. The study concluded that this activity “may generate debt that can undermine the expected socioeconomic benefits of a college degree.”
What Colleges Can Do to Help
Many colleges and universities are keenly aware of the ongoing challenges their students face when it comes to access to enough nutritious food. Other schools are not. Colleges with smaller student populations tend to rely on community resources like food banks and pantries (though they may also provide financial and volunteer support). Bigger schools tend to have their own programs and services. Some of the steps colleges can take to better assist their food-insecure students, include the following:
- Evaluate the need: It’s hard to deal effectively with any problem without first developing a clear picture of the issue. Many of the studies mentioned in this guide were conducted by colleges and universities themselves in an effort to get a handle on how food insecurity impacts their students. So, the first step for any college is to conduct its own student survey to identify the specific groups within its student populations at greatest risk of food and nutrition scarcity, as well as the reasons for their food-security challenges.
- Adjust accessibility to food: Students’ need to eat doesn’t stop when schools shut down for breaks. Colleges must recognize this problem and find ways to continue access to meals and food resources for needy students.
- Allow meal donations from other students: While the practice of donating meal swipes to feed fellow students is gaining popularity, many schools don’t allow this practice. Changing this policy is an important step any school can take to help feed needy students. Schools can also set up meal donation programs that allow students and others to contribute meal swipes and money that can be downloaded to food-insecure students’ IDs.
- Establish an on-campus food pantry: Pantries are a tried-and-true method of getting basic, nutritious food quickly into the hands of those who need it the most. On-campus food pantries also offer colleges a great opportunity to partner with charitable organizations in their communities.
- Help students apply for food assistance: Several studies have found that food-insecure college students simply are not aware of food assistance programs available to them. Others fail to apply due to the stigma attached to utilizing that aid. Therefore, colleges must increase their efforts in making students aware of food assistance and providing help with the application process.
- Target financial instability: Money is always at the heart of college student food-security issues. As mentioned earlier, lack of funds often leads students to forego nutritious meals in favor of paying tuition or basic life necessities. As a result, any efforts by schools to make college more affordable for needy students (lower tuition rates and housing costs, need-based scholarships and grants, assistance with applying for student loans and government financial assistance, etc.) is a major plus.
- Make more food resources available to all students, both on and off campus, and provide better access to information on those resources: One of the best ways to overcome the stigma of food insecurity is to offer help to everyone, not just the food insecure. Free and low-cost services and events (like food fairs and drives) will attract students on all food-security levels. Keep in mind, though, that students can’t access resources that they don’t know about, so be sure to get the word out.
Interview with an Expert on Food Insecurity
Janelle Raymundo is the Director of Communications at Swipe Out Hunger, where she leads the organization’s communications strategy to support their work in ending college student hunger. She also has experience working in higher education in marketing and communications as well as student services administration.
Q. What is the current state of food insecurity at U.S. colleges and universities, and how has the problem changed over the last several years?
A: One in three college students experience food insecurity nationally, but more recent data shows this has increased to around 40% or higher. With the pandemic, inflation, and other economic factors, college students have been adversely affected. In our campus partner network, we’ve seen an increase in the number of campus food pantries — 45% of campuses in our network have opened a pantry in the last five years. Our partners have also shared with us that they’ve seen an overall increase in usage of the pantry and their services more recently.
Q. What impact does food insecurity have on a student’s ability to pursue their studies and succeed academically?
A: We know that for students experiencing food insecurity, they’re faced with making difficult choices that impact their academics. Students have had to choose between buying food or buying textbooks and other school necessities. They’ve also had to choose between staying in school or going back to work in order to provide for themselves and their families. Students’ basic needs must be met in order for them to succeed in and out of the classroom, including graduating with their degree. Food-security programs on campus positively support student retention, holistic well-being, and their connection to their campus community.
Q. Is food insecurity a bigger challenge for grad students than for undergrads?
A: Our goal is to support all students, both at the graduate and undergraduate levels, because food insecurity is an issue across education levels. Of the students we serve through our campus network, 40% are pursuing a graduate or other degree. We know that the students who are most likely to be impacted by food insecurity include those who are parents or caregivers, international students, first-generation students, and those from low-income backgrounds, among others.
Q. What are college campuses doing to help students with food insecurity challenges?
A: Colleges have a variety of anti-hunger programs and other resources to support students’ basic needs. Some examples include food pantries, meal swipe/points donation drives, community gardens, food delivery programs, services for housing and healthcare support, SNAP enrollment assistance, and more.
Q. Are there off-campus food resources that students can tap into?
A: Aside from off-campus food pantries or food banks, other forms of food assistance like SNAP exist and have been able to help students access food. However, these are often inaccessible to many students because of work regulations. Programs like SNAP can make a big difference for students, but we need more accessible policies to be able to reach more students.
Q. Do you find that students are reluctant to reach out for help? If so, what would you tell them?
A: It’s not so much that students are reluctant to reach out for help necessarily, but more so that they might not be aware that there are resources that exist for them on campus. An important part of our work is both spreading awareness of the issue of food insecurity on campuses and the resources available for college students. We encourage any student who needs support to use the resources they have on campus, and we also encourage campuses to ensure that students are aware of what these resources are. Even adding a statement to a syllabus with information about the campus food pantry or other basic supports can make a difference and help spread awareness.