In 2019, a nationwide survey found that approximately 45% of college students experienced a form of food insecurity over a 30-day period. The pandemic saw an increase in that number for vulnerable populations. Although Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits were temporarily extended to college-age students in March 2021, the extension ended in March 2023, leaving vulnerable individuals with fewer financial resources to purchase food in a high-inflation economic environment.
The issue of food insecurity across college campuses is often overlooked and will only be accentuated by the termination of SNAP benefits. In response, universities must step up to implement and increase access to food programs to ensure that students do not go hungry.
The United States Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as a “lack of consistent access to enough food for … an active, healthy life.” The issue is especially prevalent on college campuses since class, homework and extracurricular activities make it difficult for students to hold a job to pay for meals or groceries. High housing costs and rising tuition may also inhibit a student’s ability to eat healthy, affordable meals. Further, university campus closures kept students out of dining halls for months, worsening the ability of low-income and vulnerable students to meet basic needs. The pandemic increased food insecurity on college campuses by an estimated 15%.
When a student is food insecure, they are more likely to eat less or skip meals altogether. While many colleges, including Brown, require first- and second-year students to purchase a meal plan, juniors, seniors and graduate students often must choose between expensive school meal plans or buying their own groceries, which can be especially difficult if financial aid or grants do not cover dining expenses. Graduate students are especially susceptible to food insecurity, since many work long hours and have families to feed. The mixture of academic stress and food insecurity can lead to lower grade point averages, unhealthy diets and possibly lower chances of obtaining a bachelor’s or advanced degree.
Brown already has several initiatives to assist food insecure students. Undergraduates can obtain food at Brown’s Bear Market Food Exchange pantry on the fourth floor of Page-Robinson Hall, and events offering free food are also easily located through the BrownU app. Graduate students experiencing food insecurity can apply for support through the Graduate School’s E-Gap programs or obtain food through the Graduate Student Council’s pantry. Brown’s free shuttle service and Rhode Island Public Transit Authority services can also be utilized for transportation to food banks off campus.
While Brown has a number of existing resources, it should still think about ways to expand them. And more broadly, universities need to provide adequate support for vulnerable students on campuses. Expansion and creation of food security programs is crucial to ensuring that food insecure students have access to food when they cannot afford it. For example, implementing welcoming, no-questions-asked food pantries in dining halls and other buildings across campus can make it easier for students to obtain food without experiencing the stigma that can be associated with needing food assistance. Additionally, some universities have piloted meal swipe sharing programs that donate unused meal swipes towards food banks or meal vouchers for students experiencing food insecurity. Ensuring that students are also aware of food access initiatives on campus and their eligibility for programs such as SNAP is also crucial to better assist individuals experiencing food insecurity. Campus-wide research, such as the student-created Hungry Bear Report, is also an important tool in measuring food access and missed opportunities to support students, since food insecurity is more often a result of a misallocation of resources rather than a shortage of food.
No one should go hungry when there is an abundance of food on campus. With enough resources and support for vulnerable individuals, students can focus on making the most of their educational experience — not where their next meal is coming from.
Juliet Fang is an opinion writer for The Brown Daily Herald. In her free time, she enjoys running, hiking, backpacking and watching duck videos on Instagram.