Visit Modern Campus

Combating Food Insecurity Among Non-Traditional Students

The U.S. helps combat food insecurity for students from K-12, but when it comes to postsecondary institutions, limited resources are available. 

With families at home full time, some non-traditional students go without food for days to ensure their children eat first. This causes a rise in anxiety and disconnect from their education. Reduced lunch programs are offered for students K-12 but there’s little assistance provided for students beyond that. In this interview, Maria Beam discusses the diverse experiences students have with food insecurity, how institutions can help and what more needs to be done to help the postsecondary sector. 

Beam researched this topic and had her work published in the Journal of Continuing Higher Education (JCHE), the academic publication of the Association for Continuing Higher Education. You can read the paper here. She will also be presenting this topic with JCHE on September 24th. To register for the webinar, click here.

Evo: What compelled you to explore the topic of food insecurity among non-traditional student populations?

Maria Beam (MB): Several years ago, I served as the faculty advisor for social work majors. I scheduled a meeting with a student who was running behind. When she arrived, I could tell she was distressed, and she apologized for her exhaustion and tardiness. As we started our meeting, she shared with me that she had not had any food for the past two days because she wanted to ensure her teenage children were able to eat. I immediately took her to the local café in our building and purchased several meals for her so that she could eat both lunch and dinner, as well as some food for her in the morning.

I shared that experience with many of my colleagues, and several of them had similar stories. At that time, our campus did not have a food pantry. It was because of that interaction that I decided to advocate for our campus to find a solution, so that no college student at Oakland University would go without food while earning their degree. I began to conduct my own research and found that non-traditional students were more likely to experience food insecurity than traditional students. Through the data collection process, I learned about the profound experiences that students endured, which prompted me to expand my research examining non-traditional students’ lived experiences of food insecurity.   

Evo: What are some of the most severe impacts food insecurity can have on the persistence and success of these learners?

MB: In my study, I learned students are negatively impacted physically, emotionally and academically. For example, students shared with me that often they would arrive to class feeling exhausted, fatigued and hungry, feeling stomach pangs and headaches. Moreover, they expressed feeling high levels of anxiety and worry regarding having enough money to purchase food or having enough food to feed their children. For example, a student-parent shared with me the aching feeling of telling her child no to sleepovers because she was afraid she would not have enough food for friends.  

Students expressed feeling lonely and depressed due to the lack of money to socialize with friends or go on a date. Academically, students reported greater absences and lower levels of learning due to the lack of concentration in class. Finally, students would choose to pay for food over gas to get to class. 

Evo: What are the main things you hope continuing and higher education leaders take away from reading your article?

MB: In the United States, we have a free and reduce lunch program in K-12 to support food insecure students. Just because students graduate high school does not mean their food security status goes away. Rather, it might worsen. With rising tuition costs and other basic needs or living costs, students are limited more than ever with their financial resources.  Moreover, non-traditional students tend to have extra competing financial demands and are therefore at greater risk to experience food insecurity. Students face a difficult decision, choosing between paying for gas or food; paying for a course or having money for food, all of which may limit their ability to attend class or register for courses. Many students shared with me that they either had to drop a class or complete their courses at a slower pace in order to meet their basic housing and food needs. 

In addition, all students experience food insecurity differently.  For example, students living on campus with a campus meal plan can also experience food insecurity. Student-parents face food insecurity not only for themselves but also for their families. Students who work more than part time to earn a stable income experience food insecurity.  

Finally, despite the severe impact of food insecurity, students are resilient. They find ways to cope with their food insecurity. Every student shared with me that despite their financial difficulties, they were determined to persist. They share resources, meal plans, rely on friends and family to help, or know how to locate offices or departments that are giving away free food after events or meetings. 

Evo: How can institutional leaders work to help combat this issue?

MB: The first step is to recognize that food insecurity is a real issue in higher education. With COVID-19, food insecurity among college students has worsened and will continue to. Secondly, it is important to increase food availability and access to services on campuses. This might be through use of a food pantry, meal donation programs such as Swipe out Hunger, food waste initiatives, or campus gardens. Because of CARES Act funding, universities and colleges are now in a position to support basic emergency food and housing needs, but we know that approach is not sustainable in the long-term. Colleges and universities should apply a case-management approach in supporting students to meet their basic needs. In addition, a permanent funding solution needs to be found to assist students with food, housing or transportation needs without having it comprise a student’s financial aid. 

Evo: By the same token, what can be done at a policy level to help address the reality of food insecurity among postsecondary learners?

MB: There are current advocacy efforts in reforming the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that would allow students who meet the income threshold to participate while having to meet additional eligibility requirements. The College Student Hunger Relief Act of 2019 would expand the eligibility of students at institutions of higher education to participate in the SNAP Program. 

Another example of federal policy is the Closing the College Hunger Gap Act. If enacted, this bill would require federal data collection on food and housing insecurity, which would be used to support programs. At the state level, California, for example, passed legislation for colleges and universities to participate in restaurant meals programs that use of state-issued SNAP benefit cards to purchase meals. In addition, in 2018, California introduced legislation that would reimburse public postsecondary educational institutions that provide student meal plans at no cost to students attending more than part-time while receiving state-funded student financial aid. 

In New York, the governor proposed legislation that would ensure that healthy food options are available on all college campuses and require all public college/university campuses to either provide physical food pantries on campus or enable students to receive food through a separate arrangement. While there are examples of state-level legislation to address food insecurity on college campuses, very few states have such policies in place to support college students. 

This interview was edited for length and clarity. 


Author Perspective: