Food Insecurity among college students is a growing problem on many campuses in the US. About 40% of college kids don’t have consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy lifestyle, and many don't know where they’ll get their next meal. When times are especially tight, they’re forced to face a harsh choice: tuition, or food?
Downstream problems created by food insecurity range from the obvious, such as hunger and malnutrition, to the less evident, like poor academic performance. How does food insecurity impact academic performance? The answer lies in the brain.
Thinking Takes Energy
You wouldn’t run a marathon in the middle of a fast, would you? No way! Your body needs calories in order to perform. Your brain is no different. It needs a surprisingly high number of calories to function.
According to researchers at the Washington University of Medicine at St. Louis, the brain accounts for 20% of the body’s energy use, meaning it takes about 320 calories a day just to think, which is more than it sounds. 320 calories is 5oz of ground beef, about one chicken breast, or two servings of peanut butter. It’s 16% of the recommended 2,000 daily calories.
When college students go hungry, their ability to focus decreases, making it harder to learn. Have you ever tried to concentrate when you're hungry? Could you take an exam or do your homework while living with the distraction of hunger pangs? I doubt any of us could perform mental tasks well on an empty stomach.
Poor academic performance leads to a lower chance of graduating, which explains why food insecurity directly impacts graduation rates. According to a study published in Public Health Nutrition in 2021, there is a strong inverse relationship between food insecurity and educational attainment. Put plainly, researchers found students suffering from food insecurity were 43% less likely to graduate from college.
Hunger Makes You Sad
Mental health issues are another byproduct of food insecurity. A study conducted by the University of Maryland Counseling Center found that food insecure students were more lonely, more depressed, and more anxious than students not considered food insecure. There are several underlying reasons for this. One cause is the social implications of food insecurity. Social life in college revolves around food. Whether it’s lunch in between classes, drinks on the weekend, or pizza in the dorms, spending time with friends often means ordering food. Turning down social events and watching your friends go out without you is hard. Humans are social beings and without socialization, the brain suffers, and in turn, so does academic performance.
Food insecurity can also be a source of shame. The University of Maryland study also found that food insecure students have lower self-esteem and can be uncomfortable seeking assistance. Sometimes there are solutions on campus for food insecure students, but because of the negative stigma associated with food insecurity, students are afraid to ask for help or are too ashamed to use resources like campus food pantries.
Today, solutions to food insecurity among college students come from two places: on-campus and off-campus. As mentioned above, many universities offer help to their students in the form of food pantries and other approaches like swipe programs. One off-campus fix includes a COVID-era extension of Federal programs like SNAP to qualifying college kids. Another, is the growing number of non-profits that are committed to fighting food insecurity among college students.
A great example is Student LunchBox. Founded by Karlen Nurijanyan (who suffered from food insecurity in college) Student LunchBox is a 501(c)3 that partners with businesses like food pantries, farmers' markets, distributors, and grocery stores to help California’s college students. They collect safe food that would otherwise end up in a landfill and give it to all college students in need.
Since its founding, Student LunchBox has served more than 25,947 meals to over 4000 students monthly. Right now, they operate only in Las Angeles County, but are quickly growing and hope to expand to many other campuses soon. You can help SLB grow by donating here studentlunchbox.org
With your help, non-profits like Student LunchBox can help students keep their grades up and on track to graduation.
About the author:
Clay Huston lives and writes in Houston, Texas. He attended the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana where he received a B.S. in Business Process Management. Currently CEO at notfatherless.org, Clay raises funds for orphanages.
Edited By Jennifer Wyman