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The Hunger Barrier: Overcoming Food Insecurity in College

Deciding between tuition or groceries is a choice no one should have to make. Yet nearly one in four undergraduate students faces food insecurity in college. This guide provides tactical tips, connections to community organizations, and free resources to help you overcome food insecurity.

Author: Angela Myers
Editor: STEPS Staff
A group of five college students are gathered in a modern kitchen. Two are sitting on the counter, two are standing, and one is sitting at a table with a laptop and smartphone. They appear to be conversing and eating. The bright kitchen is equipped with white cabinets, reflecting their discussion on food access.

The semester’s tuition bill just landed in your inbox. But when you log into your bank account to pay, you realize there isn’t enough money for both tuition and groceries.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a hypothetical situation. It’s a reality for almost 23% of undergraduate students — that’s nearly one out of every four students, according to Temple University’s interpretation of NCES data. This rate is almost double the rate for all U.S. households (12.8%, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture).

Food insecurity, when someone doesn’t know where their next meal is coming from, is a growing problem on college campuses. Students in this situation may feel stressed and isolated, but they don’t have to deal with this problem alone. School-supported and community organizations are there to help fill your stomach without draining your bank account.

This guide can help you navigate those resources. Keep reading for:

  • Insight into how to choose the right food security resources for you
  • Over 10 free resources available online or locally
  • Tips to overcome food insecurity quickly

Start Here: What Can You Do if You Are Food Insecure

Students facing food insecurity are not alone or lacking options. When hunger strikes, the avenues below can provide access to free resources, cut costs, and perhaps even lower your tuition bill. Here are six suggested steps, as well as examples of key programs.

Seek out school-based resources

Many schools offer financial resources, yet only two-fifths of students know about them, according to NCES data. Available resources vary from college to college but often include university-run food pantries, resources from local nonprofits, or administrative help on filing for SNAP or similar programs. At Brigham Young University, for example, the school partners with local organizations to provide for food-insecure students. UCLA offers similar resources and co-runs a cafe with free food and coffee for students in need.

Look into government assistance programs (SNAP)

Food insecurity isn’t only about a lack of food, but also not consuming enough nutrient-dense meals. Because nutritious food is often more expensive, the U.S. Department of Agriculture supplements the grocery bills of low-income families and individuals through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Eligibility requirements vary from state to state. Applying can be difficult, so many schools, such as the University of Central Florida, offer free coaching to students filling out a SNAP application.

Learn to prepare budget-friendly meals

It’s time to become a chef — on a budget, that is. While most college students are busy and may have little experience in the kitchen, there are cheap, quick meals that can help you cut costs and stop your growling stomach. The University of Purdue’s guide to affordable meals offers a range of college cooking tips. And because the guide was specifically designed for college students who haven’t cooked before, it’s a great resource for any new chef (or anyone interested in cooking on a limited budget).

Shop Items in bulk or on-sale

It’s no secret groceries are expensive. According to Northeastern Global News, food prices are 25% higher than in 2020. But while your dollar may not go as far at the supermarket, there are some tricks to get more grub for your buck.

Some of our favorites include:

  • Buy in bulk, especially for nonperishables
  • Shop on-sale products
  • Look for coupons
  • Frequent a grocery store with a loyalty or rewards program

These tips won’t solve all financial woes, but they can add a few more dollars to your pocket, and that money could be the key to affording tuition and food.

Seek out community support

Community organizations and partners can also provide home-cooked meals and other resources. The most common groups include national or local nonprofits and local food banks. Later in this article, we’ll review what community support looks like and search engines to find local food banks.

Research financial options to increase income

Sometimes, groceries aren’t your biggest expense; tuition and student fees are. To lower the cost of your degree, consider applying to different financial aid options, such as scholarships and student loans. When applying, find scholarships specifically suited to you, such as local options or scholarships for students pursuing a public service degree. To jumpstart your search, check out these 30 scholarships for public service students. Finding part-time work either through the federal work-study program or a private employer can also help offset college costs.

School-Based Resources for Food Insecure Students

To combat the growing number of food-insecure students, many colleges are creating programs or partnering with local organizations to ensure students are fed. These programs offer assistance in different ways, including the eight popular program types listed below. Access to these resources is often free, though eligibility requirements and how to access them can vary.

Campus Food Pantries

Many universities have on-campus food pantries that provide free or low-cost food options to students in need. These pantries may offer nonperishable items, fresh produce, and occasionally, personal care items. For a better idea of what these pantries look like, explore those at Auburn University and Boise State University. To use a campus food pantry, you may have to demonstrate a specific level of financial need, though this varies between institutions. Contact your school’s financial aid office to get insight into who can use the pantry on your campus.

Meal Swipe Donation Programs

Some universities, such as Drexel University, have programs that allow students with meal plans to donate unused meal swipes to their peers facing food insecurity. These donated swipes can then be used to access campus dining facilities. Occasionally, faculty members can also donate meal swipes as well. Eligibility requirements to utilize these meal swipes vary. At some schools, you can apply to use them, while others may be automatically offered based on demonstrated financial need. Contact your financial aid office to learn if your school offers this program and how it works.

Emergency Meal Vouchers

Some colleges provide emergency meal vouchers that can be used at on-campus dining facilities or local restaurants. These vouchers are designed to help students in immediate need of food assistance. While some schools offer a limited number of vouchers, others provide vouchers for as long as needed. For example, UCLA asks students to fill out an online form detailing their financial need to access vouchers.

Financial Aid for Food

In some cases, colleges may provide emergency financial assistance or grants specifically for food or groceries to students experiencing food insecurity. The University of Washington provides grants to students who are skipping meals or reducing how much they eat due to financial concerns. At the University of Washington and many other colleges, grant recipients also receive guidance on how to access food pantries and other resources that can help.

Campus Garden Projects

Some campuses have community gardens where students can grow their own produce, which helps supplement their food supply. West Chester University, for example, has four campus gardens and volunteer opportunities for students interested in learning how to grow their own food. The exact regulations around growing food in campus gardens can vary greatly, which is why it’s important to reach out to the professor overseeing the gardens about the rules and regulations.

Educational Workshops and Cooking Classes

Colleges may offer workshops or classes on topics such as budgeting, meal planning, and cooking skills to help students make the most of their grocery haul. These workshops are often hosted virtually, meaning you can learn about budgeting and meal prep from the comfort of your home. The University of Georgia, for example, organizes regular cooking classes that teach specific nutritious recipes, such as a buffalo chickpea wrap or pesto pasta.

Collaboration with Local Organizations

Colleges may partner with local food banks, churches, or community organizations to provide additional food assistance to students. This is a common school-supported resource, and universities that partner with community organizations will often feature this information and ways to access these resources on their websites.

Another tip: To find out what organizations your school partners with, Google “YOUR SCHOOL NAME food insecurity site:.edu” (example: Ohio State food insecurity site:.edu). The first few results should be related to any collaborations the school may have.

Meal Programs During Breaks

Some colleges provide meal programs or vouchers for students who remain on campus during breaks when dining halls may be closed. Access to these meal programs is often automatic, as students usually fill out a form stating their intention to stay on campus during breaks and the reason for this decision.

Community-Based Resources for Food Insecure Students

Along with school-supported resources, food-insecure students can access food banks, cooking classes, and more from community centers, local nonprofits, and religious organizations. Community-based resources are almost endless, which can make it hard to navigate your options. To help, we’ve outlined six of the most common resources and how to access local community-based initiatives for each.

Community Food Pantries & Food Banks

Local food pantries provide free or low-cost food options to individuals and families in need, including college students. Often, we think of these pantries serving non-student populations, but this is a misconception. At almost all food banks and pantries, food-insecure college students are served. Food banks collect and distribute food to individuals and families in need. They may provide food directly to individuals or through partner organizations. To find food banks near you, check out Feeding America’s free food bank search engine.

Federal/State Assistance Programs

The federal government offers multiple assistance programs to help food-insecure families and individuals, including students. These are often run in conjunction with state governments, and the individual states determine eligibility requirements.

Three of the most popular government assistance programs include:

While SNAP is a great program for the majority of students in need, WIC and TANF are helpful resources for students who are raising families.

Local Religious & Non-Profit Organizations

Many churches and religious organizations operate food pantries or meal programs to help those experiencing food insecurity. Non-profit organizations may provide assistance, such as meal delivery programs or access to fresh produce. While these programs are often hosted by groups with a religious affiliation, you don’t have to identify with that religion to sign up for the food pantry or meal program.

Community Gardens

Some communities have public gardens where individuals can grow their own produce, which can help supplement their food supply. Community plots must sometimes be purchased by community members, but other gardens offer free space for anyone interested in growing their own food. To find a community garden near you, explore the American Community Garden Association.

Community Centers

Community centers may offer food assistance programs, cooking classes, or other resources for individuals facing food insecurity. These programs can be free or offered at a low price, with the option to waive program fees if someone makes below a certain amount. The Kenmore Community Center in Akron, Ohio provides a good idea of what a thriving community center looks like. At this center, community members can enjoy popcorn and movie nights, community classes, and events. They also host a food pantry for low-income individuals.

Local Farmer’s Markets

Eating local is a great way to support the local economy and the environment, but it isn’t always the most affordable option. To offset higher costs, some farmers markets offer discounts or incentives for low-income individuals. They may also accept SNAP benefits or exchange volunteer work for food. The benefits offered, if any, vary from market to market and sometimes from vendor to vendor. If you receive WIC benefits, you may also have access to the WIC Farmers Market Nutrition Program (FMNP). Eligible WIC participants are issued FMNP coupons that can be used to buy foods from farmers, farmers markets or roadside stands.

Additional Support for Food Insecure College Students

If you’re facing food insecurity, you may notice problems in other areas of your life as well. According to a 2023 study, food insecurity can negatively impact students’ mental health and GPA. Fortunately, there are resources to improve grades, mental health, and your overall finances, including those outlined below.

Student Mental Health Resources

Not knowing where your next meal is coming from can create or exaggerate many mental health problems, including anxiety, depression, and the ability to focus in class. Whether you’re facing stress due to food insecurity or academics, you’re not alone.

Many universities offer free counseling sessions, online mental health programs, and more to help students thrive at university. There are also local and national nonprofits devoted to improving the mental health of university students. For a better idea of what specific university-supported and community resources look like, explore these must-have mental health resources for college students.

Academic Services

Food-insecure students often struggle to focus academically or devote enough time to their studies. In fact, one longitudinal study found that over 10 years, many students who dropped out faced low to severely low food security. Luckily, that same study found the drop-out rate decreased when schools had programs to support food-insecure students financially and academically.

On the academic side, many universities offer free tutoring services to help you stay up to speed in your classes. They may also offer access to a writing center, course-specific study groups, and librarians who can help you access the right materials for each class. For more on what your specific institution offers, consult with your school’s academic services team.

Student Financial Aid

If you’re struggling to achieve food security, it may be time to apply for more financial aid. Whether you’re a first-year student or entering your final year, you’ll find student loans, work-study programs, and scholarships available to lower the cost of your degree.

For many students, the first step to accessing these financial aid resources is to fill out the FAFSA. The FAFSA is a form hosted by the federal government. It’s used by the government, academic institutions, and private organizations to determine financial needs. Filling out the FAFSA is free and relatively easy, though our FAFSA guide can make the process smoother.

Additional Student Resources for Nutrition & Wellness

Looking for more resources? We have you covered. Below are 10 of the best free resources to help you overcome food insecurity. Some are completely virtual, such as online recipe guides or affordable cooking courses, while others make it easier to access community resources, such as food banks or in-person nutrition coaching.

  • 22 Cheap and Easy Recipes
    AllRecipes, a food blog, provides a comprehensive list of cheap and easy recipes specifically for college students. They include casseroles, mac and cheese, sloppy joes, and more.
  • Dish Course
    This free course outlines how to lower your grocery bill and find nutritious, affordable recipes. Course modules also cover how to grow your own food and other money-saving ideas.
  • Feeding America
    This national nonprofit partners with food banks around the country to keep their pantries and fridges stocked. They also have a useful search engine to find food banks near you and a blog full of affordable recipes and strategies to overcome food insecurity.
  • Food is Free
    Whether you’re interested in growing your own food at home or want to join a local community garden, this international non-profit can help. Their website provides a list of free community gardens as well as resources, blogs, and more to grow your own food at home.
  • Food Pantries
    Access a comprehensive guide to find food pantries near you at this site. It also connects those in need with programs that subsidize grocery bills and helps them navigate SNAP requirements in their state.
  • Food Recovery Network
    Food Recovery Network recruits college students to donate food and their time to run university food banks. They also provide resources to food-insecure students. This nonprofit has campus chapters across the country, and you can discover if your university has a chapter on their website.
  • Guide to Meal Prep
    A great way to save money at the grocery store is to buy in bulk, but this often works better when you have some easy meal-prep ideas. This guide reveals over 80 affordable recipes for meal prep and provides general tips on preparing food ahead of time.
  • Nutrition Basics
    This free online Udemy course covers the basics of nutrition, including how to source affordable ingredients. Modules cover topics like mindful eating, how to meal prep, and how to read food labels.
  • SNAP Farmers Markets
    Looking to attend a farmer’s market, but unsure if you can afford to? The U.S. Department of Agriculture provides lists of the farmers markets that accept SNAP benefits as a form of payment.
  • Swipe Out Hunger
    This national nonprofit works with campuses across the country to offer free meal swipes to students in need. To learn more about their service and if your campus has a chapter, visit their website.

Interview with an Expert: Student Food Insecurity

Interested in learning more about food insecurity, but this time from an expert source? Gabrielle Marie Yap knows a thing or two about food and being a college student. She’s a culinary professional and founder of the news/opinion platform Carnivore Style, and she holds a Bachelor of Science in Hospitality Management, majoring in Culinary Entrepreneurship. She has worked in various restaurants and food businesses. This hands-on experience in the industry has not only honed her culinary skills, but also given her a unique perspective on food services. During her time spent in the academic environment, she became acutely aware of the issue of food insecurity among college students, and was willing to share her thoughts and experiences with us here.

Q: What are the main causes of food insecurity among college students?

A: The main causes of food insecurity among college students often stem from a combination of high tuition fees, living expenses, and the lack of time to work part-time jobs. Many students are financially independent for the first time and may struggle to budget effectively for meals. Plus, some students may lack access to cooking facilities or the knowledge to prepare nutritious, low-cost meals.

Q: What are the effects of food insecurity on college students’ academic performance and overall well-being?

A: When your stomach’s growling, it’s hard to focus on complex concepts. Studies show that food insecurity can lead to lower grades, difficulty concentrating, and increased absenteeism. It can also have a negative impact on students’ mental and physical health, with higher rates of anxiety, depression, and fatigue reported among food-insecure students.

Q: What are some common misconceptions about food insecurity among college students?

A: One common misconception about food insecurity among college students is that it only affects those from low-income backgrounds. While financial instability certainly contributes to the problem, food insecurity can impact students from various socioeconomic backgrounds. Rising tuition costs and living expenses often outpace income growth, leaving many students struggling to afford basic necessities like food.

Q: How do food insecurity rates vary among different types of colleges and universities?

A: Food insecurity rates vary among different types of colleges and universities due to factors such as location, student demographics, and institutional support systems. Urban campuses may have better access to food resources, while rural or remote campuses may face challenges in sourcing affordable and nutritious options. Additionally, colleges with higher proportions of first-generation or low-income students tend to have higher rates of food insecurity.

Q: What strategies have been effective in addressing food insecurity on college campuses?

A: Effective strategies for addressing food insecurity on college campuses include establishing food pantries or food banks, implementing meal swipe donation programs, and offering financial assistance programs like meal vouchers or emergency grants. Collaborations with local food banks, farmers markets, and community organizations can also expand access to affordable and healthy food options for students.

Q: What role can colleges and universities play in supporting students experiencing food insecurity?

A: Colleges and universities can play a crucial role in supporting students experiencing food insecurity by implementing comprehensive support services. This includes providing access to affordable meal plans, offering cooking classes and nutrition education workshops, and connecting students with resources for financial assistance and food assistance programs.

Q: What are some long-term solutions to address food insecurity among college students?

A: Long-term solutions to address food insecurity among college students involve systemic changes at both the institutional and policy levels. This includes advocating for policies that increase funding for need-based financial aid, expanding eligibility criteria for federal nutrition assistance programs like SNAP, and addressing structural inequities that perpetuate poverty and food insecurity.

Q: How can colleges and universities raise awareness about food insecurity and reduce stigma associated with seeking help?

A: Colleges and universities can raise awareness about food insecurity and reduce stigma by incorporating education and advocacy efforts into campus programming. This includes hosting events like food drives, documentary screenings, and panel discussions on food justice issues. Providing platforms for student voices and experiences can also help to humanize the issue and foster empathy and understanding within the campus community.