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US college students are going hungry. Here’s why.

Students are resorting to cheap food lacking in nutrition. Source: Shutterstock

A recent federal report has uncovered the pervasive the problem of food insecurity in US colleges and universities.

Around two million students are described as “at-risk”, which means they do not have access to nutritious, affordable food, according to the report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), a nonpartisan congressional watchdog. Low-income students are most likely to suffer from this.

“College students at risk of food insecurity may be eligible for benefits from the Food and Nutrition Service’s (FNS) Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP),” the report said.

“However, GAO’s analysis of Department of Education data shows that almost two million at-risk students who were potentially eligible for SNAP did not report receiving benefits in 2016.”

With college costs soaring, so has the number of reports of students going hungry on campus. On average, according to The College Board, tuition fees for 2017-2018 at a state college was around US$10,000 for local students, but it was US$25,000 for out-of-state students and non-residents. Financial aid from the government only goes as high as a fraction of this cost, leaving many to find other avenues to support themselves, including scrapping their food budgets.

The problem isn’t confined to the US alone. According to University World Newsone South African university has up to 40 percent of its student cohort experiencing at least some level of vulnerability to going hungry. Over a third of UK university students say they can’t afford their weekly food shopping, with their mental health and general well-being suffering as they try to cope.

In the US, the GAO report estimates that between nine percent to more than 50 percent of university students are going hungry. It also highlighted findings from an Urban Insitute national study last year which found:

  • 11 percent of households with a student in a four-year college experienced food insecurity
  • 14 percent of households with a student in a vocational or technical program experienced food insecurity
  • 17 percent of households with a student in a community college experienced food insecurity

Carrie Welton, a Policy Analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy believes the figure of two million students who are potentially eligible for SNAP “seems too conservative,” as reported by Inside Higher Ed.

Conservative or not, the report asserts that this could be due to low student awareness about such aid. According to Samuel Chu, organiser for Mazon, an advocacy organisation focused of fighting hunger, said even local SNAP offices are ignorant on the specifics of being eligible for such programs.

While low-income students are most likely to be eligible for this, middle-class students are afflicted as well. Sara Goldrick-Rab, a higher-education professor at Temple University and a leading scholar on campus hunger explained to The Atlantic that middle-class students who are “too rich for Pell and too poor to afford college” struggle with food insecurity as well.

Goldrick-Rab said the report shows “that food insecurity is a college-completion issue”.

“We’re undermining our federal investment in financial aid by not paying attention to this. We have to stop pretending like living expenses are not educational expenses.”

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