Amid Pandemic-Induced Boost, Schools Look to Address Food Insecurity

By Owen Daugherty, NASFAA Staff Reporter

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged the economy and disrupted higher education, many students faced food and housing insecurity. And according to a new survey, the situation has only become more acute in the last several months, with a higher rate of students experiencing food insecurity.

More than 1 in 5 college students faced food insecurity in the early months of the ongoing pandemic, according to the survey from the Student Experience in the Research University (SERU) Consortium.

The survey — which is based on the responses of 31,687 undergraduate students at nine universities and 16,453 graduate and professional students from 10 universities — found students across all levels of study from underrepresented and marginalized backgrounds experienced much higher rates of food insecurity compared to their peers.

While the topic of food insecurity on college campuses is not new, the issue takes on greater importance as colleges and universities across the country reopen this fall — whether in person, online, or a hybrid format — and attempt to support students, many of whom are reeling from the ongoing economic impacts catalyzed by COVID-19.

The survey found 21% of undergraduate students indicated it was sometimes or often true that they worried whether their food would run out before they had money to buy more. Additionally, 14% of undergraduate respondents indicated it was sometimes or often true that the food they purchased did not last long enough to sustain them and they did not have money to purchase more food.

Among all undergraduates, students from low-income backgrounds had over twice the rate of food insecurity compared to the average, with 58% experiencing food insecurity compared to 22% of all students.

Other groups of undergraduate students who had nearly twice the rate of food insecurity compared to the average included nonbinary students, students who cared for other adults during the pandemic, working-class students, and American Indian or Alaskan Native students, all at 40%.

Among graduate and professional students, 18% said it was sometimes or often true that they worried whether their food would run out before they had money to buy more food, with 11% responding it was sometimes or often true that the food they purchased did not last and they did not have money to get more food.

The survey makes the important distinction that it is not possible to say with certainty that the pandemic directly increased students' food insecurity, but notes "it may be the case that the associated fallout of the pandemic — including the frequency with which graduate and professional students experienced the loss of personal or family income during the pandemic — may have exacerbated students' propensity to experience food insecurity."

In order to mitigate the spread of the virus, the authors of the survey suggest higher education institutions adopt practices such as food delivery to students on campus or free grab-and-go options that reduce contact.

Additionally, students can benefit from expanded hours and availability of services to help combat food insecurity and have more regular access to free food, the authors note.

Schools across the country are taking heed, utilizing new methods to both increase awareness of their programs and ensure students in need have access to food. Several institutions are promoting the resources through their primary social media channels and with messaging given to all new students.

Colorado State University (CSU), for example, is offering free delivery of food and supplies to on- and off-campus students, faculty, and staff who cannot come to the existing food pantry.

Additionally, "pocket pantries" have been set up around campus to provide more locations for students to access, along with a meal swipe program where eligible students can apply for free meals which can be utilized at campus dining halls.

"We're recognizing that food insecurity doesn't have one single face," said Michael Buttram, coordinator of the Rams Against Hunger program at CSU. "There's no prescriptive way to address it because it looks different for everybody. And we want to provide a menu of services that recognize ... at whatever level and at whatever moments of need the student is demonstrating."

The fact that the food pantry was given a permanent location and deemed essential in the spring when the virus first hit was an important step for the program, Buttram said, as the campus community utilized it more than ever over the summer and during the first few weeks of the fall semester.

Buttram said he expected about 400 students, staff, and faculty to use the pantry each week this fall.

Mississippi State University (MSU) has also seen an uptick in usage of its food security network programs since the campus opened last month, said Emily Pyron, a student services coordinator who helps run the programs.

Pyron noted it has been a balancing act to serve an influx of students while maintaining social distancing best practices and having a lack of volunteers. She stressed the importance of having a good connection with local partners to ensure they have an ample amount of food for students.

Tidewater Community College in Virginia partnered with a local food bank to open "The Community Feed" over the summer, giving students a central location to access food — complete with meal kits and contactless pick-up options. Notably, data from Temple University's Hope Center for College, Community and Justice estimates community college students experience a much higher rate of food insecurity.

Both Buttram and Pyron spoke of the importance of removing the stigma surrounding students utilizing food-related resources on campus. Buttram said he was recently able to bring on staff who will be present at the food pantry to inform students that they may qualify for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.

"I want to get us to the point at CSU where we can have our financial aid department helping us make that assessment and getting the word to them right away and saying, 'Hey, you're going to qualify for SNAP benefits, this is part of your financial aid package,'" he said. "We want to normalize the language around that."


Publication Date: 9/4/2020

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