College Student Food Insecurity and COVID-19
As part of a larger, multi-site case study on the experiences and administration of food insecurity at selective universities, we have followed up with more than 30 student participants at Flagship U, Liberal Arts U, and Private Research U to better understand how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting their academic journeys. Although this data is not meant to be generalizable, it reveals the changing, often-precarious situations of college students who struggle to afford enough or adequately nutritious food, despite – and perhaps because of – attending competitive, affluent institutions of higher learning.
Our hope in sharing these students’ experiences is two-fold: first, to illumine and honor the ways in which students experiencing food insecurity navigate the college-going process, and second, to help inform responses to hunger in college by faculty, administrators, researchers, policymakers, and others.
We will update this site periodically, as we continue to hear from student participants about their experiences with COVID in college. Our survey instrument features a variety of open-ended questions about students’ academic, financial, and emotional situations, as well as their access to food and support.
SUMMARY OF SUMMER SURVEY WAVES
In both June and August data sets, only about half of students could afford three meals a day more than three days a week, placing these students in the low and very low food security categories according to the USDA. Although students report feelings of stability in terms of food access as a result of living with parents or significant others, who contribute to food budgets and preparation, a lack of food variability, quality, and amount constrains students’ food availability. In describing their access to food, one student shared,
[I eat] 1 meal a day, 2 on a good day. I am physically disabled and autistic, so I live with my fiancée who works full-time as an [apprentice]. After rent and his car payment, there is roughly $100-$200 left for food, gas, and household expenses for two weeks. I try to cook 1-2 more hearty meals as a treat during those two weeks, like meatloaf or spaghetti, and we make the leftovers last as long as we can. Other than that, we usually make easy food like cereal, oatmeal, eggs, and ramen for each meal. [Margaret*, Lib Arts U, August data]
As a result of COVID-19, new disruptions to food access and availability have emerged, including difficulties in securing transportation to and buying food at a grocery store (curbside and bulk options are more expensive, causing students to buy more food at one time and then stretch their food as long as they can, and some students now find themselves in food deserts without access to a campus pantry).
Fiscal stability was more uneven than food stability over the summer months: although institutional and federal funds increased students’ incomes, employment opportunities were difficult to find or keep, and as aid is not renewed (like additional unemployment benefits), students are left with anxiety about what the fall holds.
I lost my on campus job but due to the extended unemployment benefits (an extra $600 per week) from COVID-19, I am actually making more money than when I was working. This has given me the opportunity to save more money and buy items I have been saving for or prolonging their purchase. [Lacey, Flagship U, June data]
Notably, students grappled not only with their own financial burdens, but their families’ as well, as parents and significant others also experienced job loss, sickness, and stress in relation to COVID.
In terms of organizational involvement, some students reported increasing engagement with mentorship programs and student organizations, even taking on new leadership roles this summer. As school shifted and remained online between April and August, this engagement – although virtual – was one consistent connection for students to their institutions.
Student stressors fell into three major categories: health, finances, and academics. First, COVID concerns were present across both survey waves, as students worried not only about getting sick, but also about the repercussions of the pandemic – including those related to financial stability and campus plans. Here, students shared that the costs of bills, food, and tuition are an ever-present set of stressors, made more difficult by a lack of institutional transparency and support in terms of the fall semester.
Transitioning to online school was the biggest stress. My home situation is not ideal for learning so I found it hard to focus. Also, during the semester, I did not have a desk to do my work so it became difficult when talking exams that required the security camera. Often they require a quiet room, no disruption, flat surface. Some professors were also not considerate of the situation. [Paloma, Lib Arts U, June data]
Having to go back to campus during a pandemic because I really don’t have another choice, and figuring out how the food situation is going to be worst or better. [Tia, Private Research U, August data]
The prevailing sense-making about college-going across June and August data questioned the value of higher education: as individuals lost the connection to their student identity by moving away from campus and moving to online coursework, they characterized their institutions as caring more about profits than their wellbeing amidst the pandemic.
I feel very disconnected from my role as a college student. I am so focused on working and surviving and bills that I forget what I initially moved to [city] for (school). I still value my school and the future degree I’ll get but it seems like that is now further away from reach. My college isn’t doing much to help its students since the beginning of the pandemic. I know they’re just a business at heart but it still sucks that their “care for students” is a façade. [Miranda, Flagship U, August data]
As the summer progressed, the number of students exploring or considering options to transfer or dropout increased (transfer: 4 to 5; dropout, 4 to 7). Here, mounting stress, growing debt, and a lack of institutional support informed students’ desires to leave their campuses.
SUMMARY OF SEPTEMBER SURVEY WAVE
Our first fall survey was shared with student participants at three case institutions – Flagship U, Lib Arts U, and Private Research U – in late September, to capture their reflections on navigating COVID in college as the fall semester began. As in our summer surveys, students were asked to reflect on their food access, institutional involvement, and academic plans in the last six weeks. All three study institutions offered both virtual and in-person learning options this fall, although the majority of Lib Arts U classes are online.
In terms of food accessibility, approximately one-third of September respondents could afford three meals a day more than three days a week. Although slight, this decrease in food access for students, as compared to our June and August data, highlights the precarity of food and finances for students in college. Notably, food access at the start of the semester varied between students living on- and off-campus. For students who have returned to their institutions, food is more readily available through the dining halls, as students’ scholarships and campus positions cover their full meal plans, though greater accessibility is limited. For students living off-campus or at home for the fall semester, access to food is less stable: for some, pandemic restrictions and low funds make grocery shopping difficult, as students try to stretch their food budgets to last two weeks to a month at a time; for others, living with family members has provided consistent access to food, as parents help with budgets and shopping.
Since I’m on campus, my food situation is amazing. My dining plan covers all the meals I need plus I get [dining dollars] funding through some of the meetings I attend so I can afford to get whatever I want on campus. [Chen, Private Research U]
My current food situation is being able to afford food twice a month (at most) because I am in between jobs and know that the winter is coming and that means that my parents will be low on work so I’m saving my money to help them in the winter when I go back home. My friends will feed me a lot. [Anali, Flagship U]
I am an RA at my school, so I get the biggest meal plan. This means that if I choose, I can get 3 meals a day. I don’t usually eat 3 meals but this meal plan, plus the rolled over meal plan from last semester means that I can access food and afford it with ease. I had to take a Leave of Absence from my job at Walmart to return to school, which means I am not nearly making the amount of money now that I was making 6 weeks ago. My RA stipend is $43.75 twice a month, which isn’t bad but definitely not the $500-$600 I was making during the summer. [Cadence, Lib Arts U]
I haven’t been able to afford the good food from off-campus places, so I eat whatever they have in the dining hall. Sometimes they don’t have options outside of cheese pizza that will be satisfactory for my food diet. [Tia, Private Research U]
Our September survey wave also revealed variations across students’ financial situations, as students reported not having a job (both due to personal choice to focus on school and due to losing previous employment), to now working two jobs to better support themselves and their families, to receiving supplemental funds via student emergency grants, financial aid, program awards, savings, and federal unemployment benefits.
I am not working at all. This is primarily due to my personal choice to focus on school. Since I am not on campus, it is not as easy to transport to school for work. The pay was not worth the effort or risk. Despite not working, I am blessed to have saved money from my McNair stipend, summer job at Pier1, and emergency funds from school. My mom is supporting me with housing and food. Also, I do not leave my house because of COVID so I have been saving a lot of money. [Paloma, Lib Arts U]
Like in the June and August waves, multiple students noted their deep engagement with campus organizations, despite the virtual format. Here, students report being current members of 2-4 student organizations, where they serve on executive councils and leadership teams. In contrast, few students report not having any time to be involved, due to academic and financial burdens.
Students named family members, friends, relatives, professors, supervisors, and mentors as key members of their support systems at present, and many students noted that this support included money for food or the provision of meals.
When asked what person has been a significant source of support, Beth, a Lib Arts U student, shared, “My parents. They try their best to send any money when they can to help buy food.”
Similarly, Phillip names his “parents” as his key supporters, as they “have brought me food and a little cash to help sustain me.” [Flagship U]
Unlike earlier survey waves, no students shared that they were exploring or planning to transfer at this time. There was also a significant decrease in the number of students considering dropping out from their institutions, due to financial instability, academic stress, and concerns about family members during the COVID-19 pandemic.
I feel very stressed from online classes. I know that I can still do this but I have a lot of doubts about my performance. That on top of not having a job at the moment, makes it stressful. I also miss my family a lot and I worry about them. [Anali, Flagship U]
*All names have been changed, and any identifying information has been [generalized].
HOW TO SUPPORT STUDENTS EXPERIENCING FOOD INSECURITY
In our own work at Baylor University, successful, meaningful support for students experiencing food insecurity has been multi-layered in its approach: from opening a food pantry to hosting campus-wide free food events to developing a network of stocked mini-fridges across campus to funding meal plans and emergency aid to students, the Hunger Free Baylor community has strived to meet students where they are, and provide multiple avenues of support. (For more information on these efforts, see our Food Links and Food Events pages).
Scholars and practitioners who study and serve students experiencing food insecurity agree that a multi-faceted response is needed, to address financial- and food-related issues at the policy, institutional, community, and individual levels. If you are interested in starting or amplifying services for students experiencing food insecurity on your campus, the resources shared below may be of some help!
Studies and links from Baylor University:
- Cliburn Allen & Alleman (2019): A Private Struggle at a Private Institution: our recently completed study of college student food insecurity at a private, selective, affluent university.
- The Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty aims to address hunger in its complexity through programs, research, and community partnerships. Check out BCHP Director Jeremy Everett’s new book “I Was Hungry: Cultivating Common Ground to End an American Crisis” here.
- For an overview of Baylor’s efforts to address food insecurity, see the following links: “4 Resources Baylor Offers for Students Fighting Food Insecurity;” “Ways Baylor is Fighting Hunger and Food Insecurity;” “Nourishing Minds and Bodies.”
Studies and links from across the US:
- One of the most visible researchers on food insecurity and college students is Sara Goldrick-Rab. See an overview she wrote about the issue for the Atlantic Monthly Online.
- The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice is a hub for responses to and research on college student hunger and homelessness. See their recent report on food insecurity during COVID here.
- The College and University Food Bank Alliance (CUFBA) provides information on how to start a campus food pantry, and hosts a network of schools across the country with student pantries.
- “Food Insecurity on Campus: Action and Intervention,” a new book edited by Katherine Broton and Clare Cady, features a variety of efforts and reflections by scholar-practitioners engaged in this work.
- Follow the #RealCollege hashtag across social media for ongoing research, insights, and student reflections on food insecurity.
Our final survey on the navigation of COVID in college by students experiencing food insecurity will be sent in November – check back later this fall for more updates and resources!