Published on 2021/04/29

Using Research and Identification to Find Solutions in Food Insecurity

Food insecurity has always had massive impact on community college students but even moreso during the pandemic. Institutions must adequately research and identify this issue on their campuses to provide effective solutions and ultimately better serve their students.

As an administrator and researcher, I have seen evidence of food insecurity among community college students up close and personal. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, I want to help community college leaders understand what their students are likely experiencing. 

The prevalence and severity of food insecurity among students is alarming. During times of rampant job loss, housing crises and increased food insufficiency, our students are experiencing negative effects on their academic performance. In fact, they are struggling to prioritize their college education at all. 

If you are a campus administrator, policymaker, philanthropist, government leader, student or layperson who believes in the necessity and importance of community colleges in providing affordable access to college education, then read and share this document. The details of this report are meant to highlight the research surrounding food insecurity among community college students and to inspire an immediate move towards campus-based reform at two-year institutions.

Introduction

Food Insecurity is when someone lacks access to the affordable, nutritious food they need to live a healthy and vigorous lifestyle. Food insecurity can affect anyone, but for this paper we will explore how it affects those who attend two-year institutions: community college students. 

Community college students represent a far greater range of ages than most four-year institutions. With age comes a greater share of students who maintain jobs while studying, who care for elderly relatives and who have families of their own. For these students, food insecurity is rarely a short-term phenomenon—it is a fact of life that is too often a distracting and enervating one.

During the pandemic, #RealCollege conducted a survey led by researchers Sara Goldrick-Rab and Carrie S. Welton. They found that two in three students who were employed before the pandemic experienced job insecurity, with the other third losing their job due to the pandemic (2020). Goldrick-Rab and Welton also found that basic needs insecurity was higher among students who experienced job loss and/or cuts to pay or hours.

With such rampant loss of pay, many working students who were already struggling with food insecurity have been left completely vulnerable to its ravages. The food security dilemma is being exacerbated by the pandemic and demands immediate attention from all campus administrators.

Even the brightest and most tenacious students frequently choose to work to earn money for food rather than focus exclusively on their studies. Thus, when investigating their individual experiences with food insecurity, the theoretical frameworks of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and Lewis’ Culture of Poverty were found to be a common link.

How common? In the course of the research I conducted in 2019, I surveyed 74 community college students and conducted twelve interviews. The participants ranged from ages 20 to 52. The participants interviewed supported a dependent at home, and all—except one who received child support payments—depended on either income from their own employment or the financial support of their spouse. 

Diverse in age and in living arrangements, the participants were united by their determination to improve their future through higher education and by the thin margins with which they kept food on the table. Highlighted below are some results from the survey:

  • 77% of students work part time an average of three days per week, 16.3% of students were employed full time and only 4.1% of students earned over $1,501 per month (Breeden, 2019).
  • 68% of students stated they often or sometimes could not afford to eat balanced meals. 62% said the food they bought often or sometimes did not last long enough. 55% often or sometimes ate less than they felt they should because there was not enough money for food (Breeden, 2019).
  • 47% of students often or sometimes felt hungry during the previous twelve months because they did not possess enough money for food. 30 participants cut the size of their meals or skipped meals because of insufficient food, with some reporting that this occurred often (Breeden, 2019).

Why Is Food Insecurity Among Community College Students a Problem?

Research shows conclusively that hunger and food insecurity can have significant negative effects on students’ concentration and performance:

Students are more likely to leave school.

Students with low food security are 14 times more likely to miss a tutoring session and not perform well in class, 18 times likelier to leave class early or arrive late and three times more likely to not participate in extracurricular activities. [i]

Students are more likely to experience negative mental health effects.

Half of the students surveyed were experiencing at least moderate anxiety, and around 30% were experiencing severe anxiety. The anxiety level among students in the sample was between ten and 13 percentage points higher than that of 18-to-29-year-olds recently surveyed by the Census Bureau (Goldrick-Rab & Welton, 2020).[ii]

Black students experience more food security concerns.

In a post-pandemic survey by the Center for Community College Student Engagement, 67% of Black students expressed concern about having enough food for themselves and/or their families, compared with 60% of Hispanic or Latinx students and 44% of White students.[iii]

For all that we invest in community colleges and all the promise they offer to the communities they serve, we must seriously consider how our oversight on the issue of food insecurity limits students’ progress. 

Once we choose to recognize our students’ need for food security, we can begin leveraging key resources to halt the economic and racial disparities that, if not checked, will further drive inequities in the attainment of a college education.

A Formula for Food Security on Campus

Community colleges are essential for helping individuals and their families improve their financial and social statuses. By earning an affordable high-quality education through traditional academic programs and vocational training, they gain upward mobility. Therefore, it is very important that we remove students’ barriers by thoroughly understanding the issue of food insecurity and implementing viable solutions as soon as possible. 

I recommend a three-step process that includes:

  1. Research
  2. Identification
  3. Solutions

This offers community colleges a simple, direct path to address the basic needs of students, both during the pandemic and afterwards.

1. Research

When I set out on my quest to better understand the extent and implications of food insecurity among community college students, I started with a two-year institution in Paterson, New Jersey. The research participants were students who participated in the Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF) program, and they primarily came from low-income and first-generation college households.

The objective of the research was to assess the existence and levels of food insecurities of community college students and explore the contributing factors related to the food insecurities this population experienced. As a result of the research, we obtained a more comprehensive view and data about a problem than either the quantitative or the qualitative perspective could give on its own. 

Community colleges can launch a campus-based study to better grasp the experiences of food insecurity their students face, which will provide the insight needed to determine which specific programs should be initiated to help their population.

2. Identification

Community colleges must use the results of their campus-based research to develop a protocol to identify students in need. My recommendation includes building a pedagogy of best practices for admissions counselors as they work with students. 

Community colleges should create a required document that not only asks about food insecurities, but also provides on- and off-campus resources. 

A response mechanism should be put in place, so students who indicate food and housing needs on admissions forms can be assisted.

The evidence clearly shows that food insecurity has been associated with college students’ decisions to drop courses or drop out of school entirely. By identifying need early, administrators and other stakeholders will be empowered to assist students quickly and support retention efforts.

3. Solutions

There are several ways to address student food insecurity on campus; the practical and applicable solutions range from passive to active. College administrators and stakeholders looking to take immediate action can start here:

  • Ensure all teaching staff provide referral information on the course syllabus.
  • Use media to share information about food insecurity and resources during student orientation. 
  • Incorporate a specific number of meal swipes with every student account.
  • Open an on-campus food pantry.
  • Provide fresh, unprepared food on campus that can be purchased with SNAP benefits.
  • Build a pedagogy of best practices for admissions counselors as they work with students.

A pre-pandemic report showed that 41% of surveyed CUNY students were eligible for the government food assistance program SNAP, but only 20% were enrolled. Many students believe, erroneously, that they are ineligible (Nargi, 2020). By leveraging national and local resources, two-year institutions can begin to meet their students’ needs more effectively.[iv]

The Takeaway

Community college administrators and stakeholders must continue to explore and understand the food insecurity of students. Doing so prevents an ominous state of affairs that adds additional stress to those trying to achieve a better education. Through qualitative studies about the food insecurity experiences of community college students, we can ensure food insecurity is understood and solutions are implemented. 

Limited literature about food insecurity among community college students exists, but more research is needed to have a deeper understanding of the issues surrounding the significant challenges students face in their academic lives. Campus-based research, early identification and implemented solutions will help two-year institutions achieve hunger-free statuses. By helping students lead themselves and their families out of the lowest paying jobs with the fewest benefits and into positions of economic success, my three-step process offers community colleges a simple, direct path to address students’ basic needs, both during the pandemic and afterwards.

References

[i] Breeden-Balaam, C. (2019). Assessing the Level of Food Insecurity Among Students at an Urban Community College. National American University, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.

[ii] Goldrick-Rab, S. & Welton, C. (2020, July 30). #Realcollege During the Pandemic. The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice. Retrieved from https://hope4college.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Hopecenter_RealCollegeDuringthePandemic_Reupload.pdf

[iii] Garcia, L. L., Bohlig, M., & Adkins, C. (2020, July 10). The Early Impacts of COVID-19 on the Community College Student Experience. Retrieved from https://diverseeducation.com/article/183750/

[iv] Nargi, L. (2020, July 7). College Food Pantries Are Reinventing Ways to Feed Students. Civil Eats. Retrieved from https://civileats.com/2020/07/27/college-food-pantries-are-reinventing-ways-to-feed-students/

Disclaimer: Embedded links in articles don’t represent author endorsement, but aim to provide readers with additional context and service.

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