College Students Are Getting Their Food This Semester From A New Source: Food Banks

College is an exciting time for students—an opportunity to begin again, to grow, to make a difference. However, along with the classes, group projects, papers, midterms, and final exams demanded to obtain a gold-stamped diploma comes a bill. A big bill. (And, depending on what career field you are pursuing a bachelor’s degree is the just tip of the iceberg.)

With the rising cost of college, there is a quiet population of students that do not know where their next meal is coming from. These low-income students cannot afford meal plans for lunching in the dining hall or snacking with flex dollars. They are hungry and some are even homeless; in 2013 58,000 college students in the US reported being homeless on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Most of these students work part-time jobs to offset college costs, but the wage is not enough to also support living costs.

The Cost of College Has Skyrocketed

Yes, college is more expensive, but isn't that just inflation? Learn more here:

Posted by ATTN: on Thursday, June 11, 2015

The high cost of college.

In the 2014-15 academic year, the average full-time student shelled out $9,139 at in-state public four-year institutions and universities. This price tag is 2.9 percent higher than the year prior (2013-14) . Out-of-state four-year institution tuitions' cashed in at an average $22,958 in 2014-15, and private nonprofit colleges and universities are even higher with an average cost of $31,231 in the 2014-15 year. This is excluding the average room and board costs ranging from $7,705-$11,188.

Tack on the hidden costs of college and you’re looking at a price tag the majority of students cannot afford. Loans, both federal and private, can assist with the immediate tuition costs but only add extra debt to the backpack of life costs you’ll be carrying post-college.

The price tag of higher education is often viewed as essential, not only by the students, but also as a product of society and the job market. By 2020 65 percent of the open jobs on the market will require higher education beyond high school; 35 percent of job openings will require at the minimum a bachelor’s degree; 30 percent of open jobs will require at least an associate’s degree or some college.

So, you need a higher education to meet many personal, professional and financial goals, but tuition costs are already high enough. Where do you cut down on spending? Some students will choose to forgo the room and board costs because why pay close to $10,000 a year when you can rent a studio apartment for much cheaper or live with family nearby? Why pay for a meal plan—a $7-11 per meal cost depending on plan type—when you can buy a lot of rice, beans and ramen for those dollars. Even then, there is rent to be paid, car payments to be made, and other costs—like childcare—depending on situation.


Food insecurity is defined by the USDA as “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.” The USDA does not measure hunger, but there are varying levels of food insecurity—low and very low and also categories of severity. Hunger, while not measured by the USDA, varies in condition from mild to prolonged under nutrition.

The state of hunger can have unexpected consequences on the student’s academic performance. While some students need to watch a balanced diet and avoid the “Freshman 15” some students are just in need of a stable diet. A lacking, inconsistent intake of nutrition has a number of effects on the student including poor academic performance. A study conducted at Western Oregon University concluded academic performance of a 3.1 GPA or higher was inversely associated with food insecurity within their study group.

Food insecurity inhibits ability to focus on the very education that is intended to assist people in obtaining jobs and paychecks that allow them to be food secure.

The helping hand.

Being a college student, let alone a hungry one, can be hard. But, when more helping hands—the greater good of other students, faculty, and community members—are able to pool resources, relief is to be found. Food pantries, offering staples—some offering fresh produce and dairy product—are cropping up at colleges and universities (generally public institutions) across the U.S. There are upwards of 200 campus-operated pantries with an expected more on the way.

Where is this trend in food assistance programs stemming from? An increasing number of low-income students are enrolled in college, despite tuition hikes. A recent report found that out of the 8.6 million student recipients of the Pell Grant program 74.1 percent reporting having no savings or other cash. This number rose from 60 percent in 2010. Students are entering a costly situation from an already disadvantaged economic background.

Food banks can make all the difference in not having to take out more loans, or having more time to study because of not needing to work extra hours at a job. Michigan State University Student Food Bank Director Nate Smith-Tyge said the MSU Student Food Bank (SFB) serves an average of 4,000 students (and families) each academic year from fall through summer semesters. SFB served a peak of students, over 5,000, in 2008-09.

“Every semester we hear from students that tell us the SFB was the difference in allowing them to stay in school or work fewer hours or take an extra class to graduate on time or be able to afford to do extra things with their kids,” Smith-Tyge told ATTN:. “This difference helps to alleviate stressors in students’ lives so they can focus on school, family, and work.”

Examining what works at the food pantries established around the country, there are a few elements that stand out. If you are considering getting involved with or spearheading a food pantry at your college campus consider the following tips of the helping-alleviate-hunger trade.

Knock out negativity.

Founded in 1993, MSU SFB was the first campus food assistance program in the country. So, they’ve seen over two decades worth of student usage and habits of the pantry. Smith-Tyge said that there is little stigma for students that visit the food pantry.

“We’re pretty ingrained in the culture and viewed as just another service offered to students,” Smith-Tyge adding that MSU is a large institution and therefore offers an extra benefit of some anonymity.

Iowa State University has offered a food pantry service to students since 2011. The SHOP (acronym for Students Helping Our Peers) is well stocked with non-perishables and is largely run by volunteers. Food Science and Human Nutrition University Professor Suzanne Hendrich, Ph.D. serves as an advisor for the SHOP. Hendrich said that some students are reluctant to utilize the serve because of their own self-perception and not from outward judgment of others.

“The SHOP is in a back hallway of our building so this helps some with privacy,” Hendrich added. “We do not collect people’s names although we ask to see ISU ID to verify they are an ISU student—the population we intend to serve.”

To further avoid deterring students from utilizing the resource, many college food pantries have a similar no-questions asked type policy. There are often regulations about how much food one can take out of the pantry at a time and how frequently they may visit the pantry.

Community combined.

A common thread behind successful food banks is involving the community both inside and outside of the campus. Often students volunteer in the pantry and donations are collected from external donors.

Smith-Tyge noted that MSU SFB is located in the Greater Lansing Food Bank (a Feeding America member) region and the organization has provided a great deal of support and allowed for donations to reach their maximum potential.

Hendrich from ISU, said that student government and other campus clubs hold food drives that support the pantry’s initiative. This works well to bind the students together by helping each other and draws attention to the cause.

Get the word out.

Reaching out to the students in need can be a challenge on large campuses with lots of events and organizations. Especially when often the target audience lives off campus.

Combine efforts with the college marketing department. Ask for suggestions of what resources the school has to reach potential users of the pantry. Develop a strong social media presence and be sure advisors and the financial aid department have materials to hand out to students who may be interested.

Hendrich added that the SHOP has gone mobile in the past, taking their service and the mission to sites off-campus where food insecure students may be more likely to notice. The group has also created holiday food baskets for a big visibility push in the winter.

Last words.

We are likely to see more food pantries crop up over the course of the next few years as the cost of tuition rise and the job market demands higher education. The right to food security is an issue for many people, and college students are not exempt from needing assistance. Food banks are an important resource, but we should also concentrate on lowering the cost of education for students so that they don't need to choose between college and food security.