For decades, the stereotypical image of a “starving” college student surviving off of Ramen for their meals has prevailed throughout the U.S. Now, as college costs continue to rise and students are often forced to choose between academic-related expenses and food, some argue that these stereotypes are masking a serious problem of food insecurity that is growing on college campuses today.
Many of these same students may be eligible to participate in, and could truly benefit from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). However, according to a new government report, this federal resource continues to be both under-marketed and under-utilized by students.
Current Prevalence of Food Insecurity on U.S. College Campuses
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, food insecurity is defined as “a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life.” It can affect a wide range of populations and has been tied to decreased academic performance, symptoms of depression and anxiety, and other negative mental health indicators.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, which was released in December, examined 31 preexisting studies on food insecurity among students since federal data on the subject does not currently exist. While the almost 60 page report covers a wide range of information on the topic, a few key takeaways stand out.
One of the reasons for growing rates of hunger on today’s college campuses can be traced to an increase in the number of low-income students now pursuing postsecondary degrees. According to data from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS), the percentage of all undergraduates who had a household income at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty line increased from 28 percent in 1996 to 39 percent in 2016.
The demographics of today’s average college student have changed as well. The GAO report notes that only 29 percent of U.S. college students fit the “traditional student” archetype, someone who enrolls in college immediately after high school and can depend on their parents for financial support.
That leaves 71 percent of students who don’t qualify as “traditional” and who meet at least one of the following characteristics: They might be independent from their parents, have dependents of their own, enroll in college later in their lives or only enroll part time so they can simultaneously work.
While the GAO report did not break down the numbers by race and ethnicity, experts have also found that students of color fare far worse than their white counterparts when it comes to being food insecure.
“There are higher levels of unmet need and there are also systemic factors at play that have hindered the ability of students of colors’ families to build generational wealth and to pass down that wealth to their children,” Carrie Welton, a policy analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy, told The College Post. “If we were to desegregate that data by race and ethnicity, we would see higher levels of food insecurity among students of color.”
Why Aren’t More College Students Taking Advantage of SNAP?
The report also found that out of 5.5 million low-income students that possessed at least one risk factor for food insecurity, only about 1.4 million of these individuals reported currently receiving SNAP benefits.
Run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service, the SNAP program “helps low-income people buy the food they need for good health.”
The SNAP website states that “most able bodied students ages 18 through 49 who are enrolled in college or other institutions of higher education at least half time are not eligible for SNAP benefits.”
However, even if they are enrolled at least half-time, students may still qualify for these benefits if they meet any one of a number of particular criteria, something that is only quietly advertised on the SNAP website itself.
According to Welton, these unclear eligibility guidelines are one of the main contributing factors to low student enrollment rates in the SNAP program.
“[The rules] are just very confusing for everybody,” Welton said. “That includes the students, postsecondary, and even frontline workers who are trying to process student applications. I think they’re so cumbersome to the point where the common understanding is that students just aren’t eligible.”
Historical biases against participation in public benefit programs and particular marketing language meant to discourage students from applying come into play as well, Welton added.
“There’s a statement in the TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) reauthorization that literally says TANF is not intended to be a scholarship program,” Welton said. “So I think there’s this belief that low-income people are a certain population with certain needs, and that there isn’t a lot of overlap between that and students.”
Others believe a generational gap and misunderstanding exists between today’s college students and their predecessors who attended school when it was much more affordable.
“We have professionals in the nonprofit communities, in the higher education communities and in the policy world, who have a cognitive bias of when they were in school,” Nicole Hindes, director of the Human Services Resource Center at Oregon State University, told The College Post. “They remember things being differently affordable or having a different understanding and not really seeing how income inequality trends are now impacting our college students.”
What Schools and States Are Doing to Promote SNAP Enrollment
Given the limitations of federal student aid funding in addressing food insecurity among college students, coupled with the poor information flow between the U.S. Food and Nutrition Service and colleges about student SNAP eligibility requirements, many individual states and colleges are now taking matters into their own hands.
At the state level, California has been a forerunner in addressing food insecurity on college campuses, implementing multiple pieces of legislation to draw down federal resources, to improve coordination between anti-hunger efforts on college campuses and their surrounding communities, and creating the Hunger Free Campus Initiative in the process.
Massachusetts has recently attempted to clarify the federal eligibility rules for students within the state as well, making it easier for students to both know their rights and to apply for SNAP benefits.
Another key piece in encouraging students to enroll in the SNAP program involves countering the narrative that it’s normal for college students to walk around hungry.
“If we’re particularly talking about trying to dispel the notion that being hungry is just part of the college experience, I think that postsecondary institutions have the largest role to play in that,” Welton said. “I would recommend they embed services for low-income students or for people who are food insecure into all of their regular institutional communications and practices.”
While many schools across the country are now making strides to achieve this, Oregon State University’s particular efforts in this space stand out.
According to Hindes, OSU’s Human Services Resource Center strives to be creative about identifying which students are SNAP-eligible, as well as proactive in encouraging those students to come in and apply for SNAP. These goals manifest in a variety of ways.
First, the application for the University’s general Campus Food Assistance Program automatically screens students for SNAP eligibility. Upon being identified as potentially eligible to receive SNAP benefits, meetings are held where students work with HSRC staff to fill out the SNAP application and other necessary paperwork, preventing processing delays down the line.
Destigmatizing food insecurity is also a component that is interwoven into the HSRC’s work. Now in its second year, OSU has held a widely-publicized SNAP application event in the middle of its campus, teaching students what SNAP is and what it can translate to in terms of money, encouraging students to apply, and bringing greater overall visibility to the issue.
Because having federal work study is one of the easiest ways for students to qualify for SNAP, the HSRC hires work study students to be SNAP ambassadors. In the role, students are trained on what SNAP is, what the basic eligibility components of the program are and where to send people to get support filling out an application; all while becoming SNAP-eligible themselves in the process.
HSRC staff also commonly collect and advertise “SNAP Stories,” testimonies from professionals on campus who relied on SNAP when they were in college, to further normalize food insecurity and promote participation in public assistance programs.
Finally, Hindes said she frequently coordinates with OSU’s counseling and student health centers to aid students experiencing physical conditions, or symptoms of anxiety, depression and stress that would make meeting the federal work requirements for SNAP practically impossible.
What the Future of SNAP Promotion Looks Like
Looking ahead, both Welton and Hindes agreed that schools themselves have the greatest responsibility in educating students about the benefits they could receive through the SNAP program and in helping students navigate the complicated SNAP landscape.
“If we’re going to agree as a country that our values are that people are educated and that we value education, then all of the people who have a stake in making that happen have a role to play in ensuring that students understand and have access to the basic needs program to be able to complete school,” Welton said.
From firsthand experience, Hindes added that students themselves may be well-positioned to spearhead these efforts.
“I think that students know how to speak, they know how to destigmatize things, and they know how to translate something that might be really complicated and full of jargon to their peers,” she said. “That’s really what the students respond to. Hearing other students talk about [food insecurity] and hearing that this isn’t something that they might need to feel shame about.”
Furthermore, in order to finally move past the myth that food insecurity means solely subsiding on Ramen, Hindes said a more realistic and informed conversation on the topic should be taking place on campuses as well.
“What we really need to do is make sure that we’re educating everyone about, yes this problem is real, yes this problem is impacting student success, and yes we need to use every tool at our disposal to address it,” she said.