By Susan Blumenthal, M.D. and Christina Chu

Universities may be overlooking food insecurity as a major deterrent to their students’ academic success. While hunger has been considered a problem mainly at two year colleges or state universities, surveys of schools now suggest that an estimated 20% to 33% of students at four year colleges experience food insecurity. And when students are hungry, their educational attainment is significantly affected.

Food insecurity is experienced by 12.3% of U.S. households and is defined by the USDA as a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food. Of the estimated 17.5 million undergraduates in America, 15% are enrolled in four-year colleges and live on campus, while 25% are over the age of 30, and 43% attend two-year institutions. Student loan debt in America totals $1.4 trillion and low-income students are more likely to drop out of college for financial reasons, such as not having the funds to cover costly living expenses associated with student life including books, supplies, transportation, health care, clothes, housing and food. Many students consider food to be their most flexible expenditure when determining where to cut expenses, which may be contributing to the alarming rates of food insecurity across college campuses in the United States today.

Research shows that food insecurity among students occurs at both two-year and four-year institutions. The 2016 Hunger on Campus Report surveyed 3,765 community college students and found that 25% reported experiencing very low food security, compared to 20% at four-year schools. A multi-state survey of more than 33,000 students enrolled at 70 colleges conducted in March 2017 by the University of Wisconsin’s Harvesting Opportunities for Postsecondary Education (HOPE) Lab found that as many as two thirds of students were food insecure which is higher than the 12.3% rate for the general population in America. Additionally, as many as 13% of students enrolled in two year colleges experienced homelessness. While this study was not a nationally representative sample of students or colleges, the HOPE cohort was far greater in size and diversity than those evaluated in prior research of food insecurity on campus, providing information on critical issues in need of further study. Another study analyzing college student food insecurity rates between 2008 and 2014 found that 21% of students were food insecure, with the highest rates occurring during the 2008 economic recession.

Additional findings from research on college student food insecurity include:

In April 2011, 40% of students at the City University of New York reported having been hungry in the past 12 months.

In December 2015, a study at Cornell University found that 22% of 4,419 surveyed students had skipped meals due to financial constraints “occasionally,” “often,” or “very often” in the past year.

In July 2016, a study at University of California (UC) found that 23% of students experienced low food security and nearly 1 in 5 students (19%) experienced very low food security across their 10-campus system. This finding is consistent with previous UC surveys conducted in 2012 and 2014 revealing that 26% of 150,000 undergraduates skipped meals to save money.

In October 2017, a student socioeconomic survey (CASE) found that one in ten MIT undergraduates could not afford food, course supplies, transportation to visit home, or professional clothing at some point during their educational experience at the University.

First generation low-income students, many of whom are enrolled in community colleges, are particularly vulnerable to food insecurity. More than 56% of all first-generation students were food insecure, compared to 45% of students with at least one parent who had attended college. Additionally, food insecurity is more prevalent among students of color. The 2016 Hunger on Campus report found that 57% of African American students faced food insecurity, compared to 40% of non-Hispanic white students.

Most food insecure students are working (56%), receiving financial aid (75%), and enrolled in a meal plan (43%). However, financial aid and scholarships only partially address the subsistence requirements college students need to succeed. The 2016 Hunger on Campus Report found that 32% of food-insecure students reported that it affected their educational performance: 55% of these students did not have sufficient funds to purchase required textbooks, 53% missed their courses, and 25% dropped courses. A 2011 Public Agenda report, With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them, revealed that many students left college because of the stresses of supporting themselves while attending school. Of those who dropped out of college, 36% reported that it would be difficult to return to school even with grants covering tuition and books. From this subset, 56% of these students were working full-time and 53% had family commitments. The rising cost of college and living expenses is challenging, especially for students receiving federal financial aid. Among the three out of four food insecure students who received some form of financial aid, 52% received Pell Grants and 37% took out student loans. Even meal plans for campus dining halls may not be effective prevention, as up to 43% of meal plan enrollees at four-year colleges report experiencing food insecurity. Campus meal plans are structured to provide students with 7 or 14 meals per week. Many low-income students get their meals elsewhere because they lack funds to afford a comprehensive meal plan option. Students who opt for cheaper meal plans may not be eating an adequate number of meals; 46% of food insecure students report running out of meal points before the end of the term, compared to 33% of all students on a meal plan.

Addressing Food Insecurity on Campus

Reducing food insecurity on college and university campuses requires mobilizing all sectors involved with higher education.

College Based Initiatives

Colleges and universities should conduct a systematic analysis of the prevalence of food insecurity on their campus, and develop initiatives to reduce its impact on students. Several colleges and universities have made addressing food insecurity a priority with recommendations for action listed below:

Creating Campus Working Groups to Address the Basic Needs of Students

Several colleges and universities have established working groups or task forces to coordinate and oversee advocacy initiatives around meeting the basic needs of their students. Initiatives include identifying the prevalence of food insecurity and homelessness, and then developing solutions. Some schools have hired a case manager or assigned existing staff to serve as points of contact to help food insecure students find assistance. More colleges and universities should consider adopting this approach.

Establishing Campus Food Resources

Colleges should implement innovative approaches to address student food insecurity, such as establishing or linking to community food banks, pantries, food recovery programs and building campus community gardens. In 1993, Michigan State University established the MSU Student Food Bank, the first campus-based food assistance program in the nation. More than two decades later, Michigan State University partnered with the Oregon State University Food Pantry to establish the College and University Food Bank Alliance (CUFBA), which advises and supports campus food banks. As of November 2017, CUFBA included more than 566 member institutions, a significant increase from the initial 15 colleges registered in 2012. This dramatic increase demonstrates the need for easily accessible and navigable food security resources for college students. Off-campus food resources are not always a feasible option, as students may not meet community-based agency requirements or may incur transportation costs if resources are not nearby. Establishing on-campus food resources, food vouchers, and food scholarships could be significant steps forward in providing food assistance to students in need.

Sharing Meal Plan Swipes

Some students may have leftover points in their meal plans towards the end of the academic year. Because many universities do not allow students to easily share or donate their meal swipes to peers in need, some students have developed mobile applications or websites to donate or share meals. For example, Swipe Out Hunger is a student organization enabling students to use their extra meal swipes to purchase meals for the homeless. In 2016, Swipe Out Hunger changed its focus to address campus hunger, establishing 30 chapters across the country. At New York University, students established the program, Share Meals in response to a classmate’s anonymous Facebook post describing having only $25 to spend on food for two weeks. This initiative resulted in the creation of an official student organization and digital platform, offering students the option to share leftover meal plan swipes with their peers. At MIT, a program SwipeShare was established so that students could donate meals to their classmates. Last spring, Tufts University established a program, Swipe it Forward, with 300 students participating. In 2015, Columbia University students created an app called Swipes, to accomplish the same goal. Yet, a year later, the app was no longer functional, and students said that neither the app nor similar initiatives had “…systematically attack[ed] the causes and consequences of food insecurity.” While sharing meal plan swipes is an option for addressing food insecurity, university administrators should evaluate how to systematically assess restructuring meal plans to adequately support their students’ needs.

Help Students Access Federal, State and Community Food Assistance

Only about one quarter of food insecure students receive assistance from the Federal Supplemental Food Assistance Program (SNAP), a $76 billion initiative that serves 46 million Americans. In 2011, the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) launched the Benefits Access for College Completion (BACC) Initiative, a program that ran from 2012 to 2014 with the purpose of helping eligible students access Federal benefits such as SNAP and Medicaid. The goal was to help students reduce financial barriers to their education and improve college completion rates. BACC partnered with seven community colleges to design policies and practices, providing information about federal and state assistance program eligibility and helping students with the enrollment process. The participating institutions found that “increasing access to public benefits was more effective when combined with other services in which students already engage, such as financial aid, counseling, and advising.” In addition, increasing students’ access to benefits improved the likelihood that they would graduate, especially for students who qualified for multiple Federal benefit programs. Implementing campus-based initiatives can also help reduce the stigma associated with receiving food assistance for students. California State University is implementing a system to begin accepting CalFresh (SNAP) electronic benefit transfer cards (EBTs) across their 23 campuses. More colleges and universities should develop initiatives to help low income students more easily navigate and access government food assistance programs to supplement their financial aid. Institutions should also develop strategies to decrease the stigma that may prevent students from accessing needed resources to alleviate food insecurity on campus.

Policy Solutions

A GAO Report: Food Insecurity on Campus

Several members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee have requested that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) conduct a study on the scope of food insecurity at American colleges and universities. On March 20, 2017, the GAO announced that it will conduct the first-ever review of food insecurity among students enrolled in higher education which will provide national data about food insecurity on campuses nationwide. This evidence can then be translated into actions that more effectively address food insecurity experienced by students at colleges and universities across the country.

Expanding Eligibility for the Federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) to include College Students

For the first time in more than 50 years, the majority of American public high school students qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch meals, and their financial situation often follows them when they enter college. Yet, Federal food assistance initiatives such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) may not be accessible for low income students on campus. According to the 2016 Hunger on Campus Report that surveyed 3,765 students in 12 states from both community colleges and four-year colleges and universities, only 25% of food-insecure students reported using SNAP. Despite being income-eligible, students may not qualify for SNAP because of the 20-hour work week minimum eligibility requirement. SNAP should be re-evaluated so that the minimum number of work hours is reduced to accommodate the schedule of college students, or changed so that college enrollment would count towards the work requirement. In 2014, California passed AB 1930 to address this very issue. California college students enrolled in a work-study program now qualify for CalFresh, the state’s SNAP program. Last year, Congressional legislation, the College Student Hunger Act of 2017 was introduced to expand SNAP eligibility for college students and the Foster and Homeless Youth Food Security Act of 2017 to modify SNAP eligibility requirements to include foster care and homeless youth who are enrolled in college. Additionally, the upcoming 2018 Farm Bill provides an important opportunity to modify SNAP eligibility rules so that food insecure college students could qualify for food benefits.

Additionally, the HOPE Lab report proposes that the Federal National School Lunch Program (NSLP) be expanded to include income eligible college students. This program currently provides free or reduced-price meals to K-12 public school students. By doing so, 7 million Pell Grant recipients across all public and private colleges and universities would qualify for food assistance. Some colleges have implemented a school lunch-type program on their campus. For example, Bunker Hill Community College in Massachusetts purchases lunches at wholesale rather than retail prices to distribute to students in need, while some other colleges provide food vouchers.


Food insecurity is a significant public health concern on campuses across the country and can interfere with a student’s ability to learn, thrive and complete their education. Solutions are needed on campus, in the community, and at the state and Federal levels. Institutions of higher education should establish initiatives on their campuses to address food insecurity, link to community resources, and provide guidance for their students on how to enroll in Federal and state food assistance benefit programs. Two important strategies to address food insecurity include collecting more data on the scope of the problem on campus as well as changing eligibility for Federal food assistance programs, such as SNAP and the National School Lunch Program to include college students. Implementing a comprehensive action plan to decrease food insecurity on campus will help enhance students’ college experience, academic attainment, and their overall health now and in the years ahead.

Rear Admiral Susan Blumenthal, M.D., M.P.A. (ret.) is a Senior Fellow in Health Policy at New America and a Clinical Professor at the Tufts and Georgetown University Schools of Medicine. Dr. Blumenthal served for more than 20 years in senior health leadership positions in the Federal government in the Administrations of four U.S. Presidents including as Assistant Surgeon General of the United States, the first Deputy Assistant Secretary of Women’s Health, and as Senior Global Health Advisor in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. She also served as a White House Advisor on health. Prior to these positions, Dr. Blumenthal served as Chief of the Behavioral Medicine and Basic Prevention Research Branch and Chair of the Health and Behavior Coordinating Committee at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). She has chaired numerous national and global commissions and conferences and is the author of many scientific publications. Dr. Blumenthal is the Director of the website and served as Chair of the 53% Conference that examined digital media strategies to strengthen the WIC Federal Food Assistance program. She served as the Public Health Editor of the Huffington Post, as the health columnist for Elle magazine, and as the Host and Medical Director of an award winning television series on health Admiral Blumenthal has received numerous awards including honorary doctorates and has been decorated with the highest medals of the U.S. Public Health Service for her pioneering leadership and significant contributions to advancing health in the United States and worldwide. Recognized by the New York Times, the National Library of Medicine and the Medical Herald as one of the most influential women in medicine, Dr. Blumenthal was named the Health Leader of the Year by the Commissioned Officers Association and as a Rock Star of Science by the Geoffrey Beene Foundation. She is a recipient of the Rosalind Franklin Centennial Life in Discovery Award.

Christina Chu served as a Health Policy Intern at New America in Washington, DC. She is a senior at Brown University studying Health and Human Biology.