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  • Writer's pictureKarlen Nurijanyan

Addressing College Student Food Insecurity and Hunger on Campuses


Volunteers and students at a pop-up distribution event organized by  Cal State LA Food pantry and Student LunchBox.

In the year preceding the COVID-19 pandemic, according to USDA, approximately 35 million Americans, or 10.5 percent of US households, experienced food insecurity. Unfortunately, this number has surged since the pandemic's onset, with estimates suggesting a doubling rate. While food insecurity affects a significant portion of the population, it is crucial to highlight a group that often faces this crisis in silence: college students. Their struggles with food insecurity have mainly remained under-recognized, under-examined, and under-addressed.


Before the pandemic, a staggering 30 percent of college students experienced food insecurity at some point during their academic journey, according to PBS News. Recent data from the fall of 2020 (Hope Survey) indicates that 38 percent of students in two-year colleges and 29 percent at four-year colleges reported experiencing food insecurity the previous month. Campus closures during the pandemic significantly impacted students' access to vital services like food assistance. Based on the data collected by Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey, students aged 18 to 24 faced the highest unemployment rates during the pandemic, exacerbating their financial despairs. Consequently, low-income and vulnerable students found it even more challenging to meet their basic needs, leading to an estimated 15 percent increase in food insecurity among students, primarily females, racial minorities, and low-income individuals.


The Interplay of Food Insecurity, Academics, and Health:

Food insecurity can profoundly affect a student's academic performance and overall health. Food insecurity and college stress often result in lower GPAs, reduced classroom performance, lower attendance, and decreased graduation rates. Moreover, food-insecure students are more likely to report signs of stress and depression. To stretch their food budget, these students often opt for cheaper, processed, and fast-food options, contributing to unhealthy dietary habits that can lead to obesity. These negative impacts on academics and health create a vicious cycle that can persist throughout a student's life.

The factors contributing to food insecurity on college campuses are complex and interconnected. Key drivers include financial instability, housing insecurity, work or family commitments, and student loan debt. Food-insecure students often fit specific profiles, such as financial independence, off-campus living with roommates, working while studying, or receiving government support. First-year college students, in particular, are susceptible to these challenges as they navigate the transition from high school to college and the newfound independence it brings. Addressing food access is crucial for ensuring all students have an equitable chance of succeeding in college.


Colleges and universities have responded to food insecurity among students in various ways, primarily by establishing food pantries. While these pantries have succeeded in bridging the gap between food-insecure students and nutritious meals, they often have limitations regarding accessibility, location, operating hours, and stigma. Many pantries rely on student organizations for support and donations from the community, making it challenging to predict and plan food distributions effectively.


In addition to pantries, institutions typically maintain websites providing information about food assistance programs, including SNAP enrollment assistance. However, merely listing resources online falls short of ensuring that eligible students are aware of their eligibility or capable of navigating the complex application process. Therefore, colleges and universities need more robust program coordination and increased outreach efforts to assist at-risk students in utilizing these benefits effectively.


Federal policies have historically restricted college students' access to SNAP, one of the US's largest food safety net programs. Pre-pandemic regulations imposed eligibility restrictions on most full-time college students, necessitating "qualifying exemptions" such as working over 20 hours weekly or caring for a child. Although temporary SNAP expansions for college students were enacted in response to the pandemic, they have expired as the nationwide COVID-19 public health emergency designation was lifted. (Source USDA)

Recent legislative proposals, including the HR 1919 EATS Act of 2021 and S 1569 Student Food Security Act of 2021, aimed to address food insecurity on college campuses. (Source Congress) These bills advocate for the permanent extension of SNAP eligibility for college students, increased outreach efforts, and comprehensive data collection on food and housing insecurity. However, as of now, no bill has advanced beyond their respective congressional committees.


Nonetheless, these strategies alone cannot provide a comprehensive solution. It is equally essential to study program implementation strategies on campuses and foster collaboration between universities and public safety-net programs to provide consistent and reliable support for vulnerable students. By addressing food insecurity, we not only enable students to complete their higher education but also break the intergenerational cycle of poverty, ultimately fulfilling the promise and potential of higher education.

In the challenging landscape of college food insecurity, Student LunchBox (SLB) emerges as a beacon of hope, radiating a vision of change and progress. Their mission is profound, driven by a set of goals that promise to transform the lives of countless college students within Los Angeles County. At its heart, Student LunchBox aims to reduce food insecurity among college students, ensuring they have access to nutritious and culturally appropriate food. By doing so, they address a critical barrier to academic achievement and retention, nurturing an environment where educational aspirations can flourish, unburdened by empty stomachs.


SLB initiated a program to actively purchase and rescue safe and nutritious food that would otherwise go to waste by forging partnerships with local agencies, businesses, and community members. SLB's weekly recovery efforts provide college students and their families with much-needed sustenance, including fresh fruits and vegetables, a wide range of grocery items, whole grains, protein sources, and many other food items tailored to their immediate nutritional needs. Their mission is rooted in the belief that no student should choose between their education and basic needs.


This commitment extends beyond immediate relief; it is about building a sustainable model for tackling college hunger. Student LunchBox seeks to create a blueprint for success that can be replicated and scaled across the state. Their ambition knows no bounds as they aspire to promote student success and well-being by breaking the cycle of hunger-induced challenges that hinder academic excellence.


Yet, Student LunchBox doesn't stop at their direct impact. Their mission is a testament to the power of collective action, where a community comes together to ensure no college student has to battle hunger. It's a vision of a brighter future where education flourishes, unhindered by the burden of food insecurity. In partnership with the community and local businesses, Student LunchBox is rapidly expanding its reach, touching more college students' lives. Their collaborative approach fosters a sense of shared responsibility, showing that it's not just about food; it's about lifting students toward their dreams.


Student LunchBox's impact in Los Angeles County is growing exponentially. They rapidly expand their reach to more college campuses through collaborative efforts with the community and local businesses. Their partnerships ensure their goals are realized by fostering a shared responsibility among all stakeholders.

Student LunchBox Partners: California State University Long Beach, Long Beach City College, California State University Los Angeles, California State University Northridge, Los Angeles Pierce College, NYU Los Angeles, Los Angeles Valley College, CBD College, and the University of Texas Los Angeles

The impactful partnerships enable Student LunchBox to serve an average of 6,000 students monthly, providing them with essential nourishment and support. What sets them apart from other agencies is their extensive reach, as they extend services to students attending institutions spanning from San Fernando Valley to Long Beach, including California State University Long Beach, Long Beach City College, California State University Los Angeles, California State University Northridge, Los Angeles Pierce College, NYU Los Angeles, Los Angeles Valley College, CBD College, and the University of Texas Los Angeles. Today, SLB continues to grow and expand its reach, guided by the belief that every student deserves access to nutritious food. SLB's history is defined by unwavering determination, collaborative partnerships, and a profound understanding of food security's critical role in unlocking students' full potential. Through their relentless and unwavering efforts, they are committed to shaping a future where hunger is no longer a barrier for college students.

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