By Heather Haase
Facing years of student loans and employment insecurity ahead of them, many college students are already struggling to put food on the table.
More than a third of college students at four-year institutions in the U.S. have felt “food insecure” at some point in the past 30 days, according to a survey published earlier this month by researchers at Temple University and the Wisconsin HOPE Lab. The study defines food insecurity as “the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods, or the ability to acquire such foods in a socially acceptable manner.”
The issue of student hunger is not widely discussed, but it plagues students across the nation, including right here at the College.
Some students find they are eating smaller portions and even skipping meals because they cannot afford to pay for food.
“Sometimes I have to rationalize that I need to eat,” said Olivia Grasing, a junior journalism and professional writing major.
Though this nationwide study is the first of its kind, researchers hypothesize the problem has been escalating in recent years because while tuition costs are rapidly rising, more low-income students are enrolling in four-year institutions, seeking a chance for upward mobility through scholarships and grant programs.
A study published last year in the international review journal, “Advances in Nutrition,” showed that students who suffer from food insecurity report high levels of stress, poor quality of sleep and lower GPAs. Hunger adversely impacts students’ physical ability to focus, and the psychological stress of seeking out food further contributes to an increase in anxiety.
The College offers a variety of dining options on campus, mostly centered around a meal plan. The Carte Blanche meal plans allow unlimited access to The Atrium in Eickhoff Hall. Students can swipe in whenever the cafeteria is open, and get as much food as they can eat while they are still in the facility.
Any student, regardless of whether they are a residential student or a commuter, can purchase this plan.
However, these plans cost at minimum $3,620.61, which some students simply cannot afford.
After living on campus for a year, Lorena LiMato, a senior music education major, started commuting from home to save money.
“I feel like there’s a whole stereotype that people our age don’t have money concerns and it just makes me sad because people assume my parents pay for everything, and I have to tell them ‘no,’” LiMato said. “They help me out when they can, but not for everything and I feel it — it’s really stressful.”
Other meal plans are much cheaper, but do not offer unlimited access to Eickhoff. For the A la Carte, Apartment and House plans, every point equals one dollar, and once they spend all of their points, they must pay out of pocket. Students can also pay for Block Plans, which cover either 25 or 50 meals at Eickhoff. The plan carries over the entire academic year.
LiMato paid for her own Block Plan this academic year, but ran out of meals near the beginning of the semester.
“Most of my paycheck goes to food and gas and that’s basically it,” she said. “So it makes it hard to save money for anything else. The time that I do have to realistically work more goes into getting here.”
Purchasing a meal plan at the College is required for all residential students at the College, but 42 percent of students who attend the College live off campus, according to US News. Many upperclassmen move off campus, not only to gain a sense of independence, but to save some money as well.
“Having a job helps, but now that I don’t have a meal plan, not having enough groceries is in the back of my mind,” Grasing said. “When the money comes out of my account, that’s a big stress factor to see the balance go lower, but at the same time I know I’m spending on things that I need to survive.”
Still, some students struggle to pay their rent, let alone buy groceries. According to the Temple University and Wisconsin HOPE Lab study, 36 percent of college students in the U.S. struggle with housing insecurity, which includes a wide variety of challenges, including the inability to pay rent every month. 9 percent of students at four-year colleges have slept in shelters or lacked a consistent place to sleep in the past year.
As a result of this growing issue, student-run food pantries have been opening up on college campuses all over the country. Over 570 campus food pantries across the nation are part of the College and University Food Bank Alliance, which helps colleges establish food pantries and develop other programs to address campus hunger, according to AP News.
Rider University joined the swelling list in early February of this year.
Some other colleges allow students to donate extra points or swipes to students in need, according to The New York Times.
In 2013, a New York University graduate student created an app called Share Meals that connects students with a surplus of points with students who are food insecure. The app also has a place for organizations to post information about events that include free food.
“The Dean of Students’ office has been thinking about this issue for the last couple of years, as more and more students are being referred to our office that are experiencing food and housing insecurity issues,” said Kelly Hennessy, the associate dean of students at the College.
In the past year, an emergency fund called Lions Lifting Lions was created to help students who are unable to pay for essential expenses like food and housing. Current students who have exhausted their financial resources can apply for a one-time fund that never has to be repaid.
Hennessy’s efforts to address this issue do not stop there. Student Affairs has also been collaborating with Mercer Street Friends to potentially develop plans for a food pantry on campus.
Hennessy said she feels the College needs to understand more about the needs of the campus community.
“I have reached out to Wisconsin HOPE Labs to request to be part of the next survey,” she said. “We are hoping to administer the survey within the first four weeks of fall 2018 semester. We have already secured funding to be part of their research. Our hope is that data will help us understand the need on our campus so we can understand how to best address them.”
In the meantime, Mercer Street Friends provides bags of food to students in need. Sodexo and the College’s Dining Services have also provided the dean of students’ office with some small meal blocks to give to students currently experiencing food insecurity, according to Hennessy.