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  • Writer's pictureKarlen Nurijanyan

College Hunger In California - Problem Statistics

Updated: Jun 14


College Student Looking Out of the Window

In the halls of California’s higher education institutions, a silent struggle against hunger persists. Thousands of students across community colleges and universities confront the gnawing reality of food insecurity, an issue that demands immediate and comprehensive action. This pervasive crisis not only hampers academic performance but also casts a long shadow over the prospects of our nation’s youth. As the cost-of-living soars and financial aid falls short, the specter of hunger looms large, threatening to derail the dreams and aspirations of countless aspiring scholars. It is a testament to the resilience of these students that they continue to pursue their educational goals amidst such adversity. Yet, it is a clarion call to society at large to address this systemic failure and ensure that the pursuit of knowledge is not overshadowed by the basic need for sustenance.

 

The Hidden Crisis of College Hunger

 

For decades, the pervasive issue of hunger on college campuses has been a silent struggle, gradually escalating into a full-blown crisis that has left countless students grappling with the challenges of pursuing higher education while struggling to meet their basic needs. Despite the growing severity of this problem, it has long felt as though the college student population had been largely forgotten or omitted from the broader discussions surrounding food assistance programs. The conversation around “being broke” in college and resorting to eating ramen noodles to survive has become so normalized in our daily lives that it has almost seemed acceptable for students to experience hunger while striving to obtain their degrees.

 

This normalization has led to a lack of urgency in addressing the issue, allowing it to persist and worsen over time. The notion that struggling financially and going hungry are simply part of the college experience has been deeply ingrained in our society, masking the reality that campus hunger is a serious problem that demands attention and action. The fact that this crisis has been ongoing for so many years without significant intervention or support highlights the need for greater awareness, resources, and systemic changes to ensure that no student has to choose between their education and their basic need for nourishment.

 

In recent years, the emergence of numerous studies and surveys revealed the dire reality faced by college students, exposing the immense challenges they must navigate while pursuing their education. Society's high expectations demand that students excel academically, work to support themselves, pay exorbitant rent and tuition fees, cover transportation costs, and gain valuable experience to meet the ever-increasing demands of employers, even for entry-level positions. This relentless pressure and stress take a severe toll on students' well-being, leading to widespread physical and mental health issues that compound the already daunting task of achieving success in college.

 

Understanding Statistics and Reasons

 

The alarming reality of food insecurity among college students in California is impossible to ignore, with a staggering 40% struggling to access adequate nutrition, surpassing the national average of 36%. 


The 2016 #RealCollege survey, encompassing 57 schools and 40,000 respondents, has exposed a shocking reality: nearly 50% of California community college and university students experienced food insecurity within the past 30 days. Additionally, 60% of respondents reported housing insecurity in the previous year, with 19% experiencing homelessness. These alarming statistics highlight the pervasive struggles that students face while pursuing their education, often compromising their ability to focus on their studies and excel academically. The mental and emotional toll of constantly worrying about necessities cannot be overstated. It is imperative that we take urgent action to address this crisis and ensure that all students have the support they need to succeed.

 

In a pivotal study conducted by the University of California in the spring of 2015, a significant portion of the student body was found to be struggling with food insecurity. The study, which surveyed a random sample of over 66,000 students across all 10 UC campuses, revealed that 19% of the respondents faced “very low” food security, as defined by the USDA. This means these students had times when their food intake was reduced due to a lack of resources. An additional 23% were found to have “low” food security, indicating a diet lacking in quality, variety, or desirability, though not necessarily in quantity. The survey’s findings also indicated that students who were food insecure were more likely to have received federal nutrition assistance and need-based financial aid, such as Pell Grants.

 

According to a comprehensive report by California State University in 2018, the prevalence of food insecurity among students is alarmingly high. The study revealed that 41.8% of CSU students (480,000-student population) faced food insecurity, with 20% struggling with low food security and 21.6% with very low food security. This stark contrast with the national food insecurity rate of 12.3% among U.S. households in 2016 underscores the unique challenges faced by college students, positioning them as a particularly vulnerable group within the population. Equally, in 2020 The Los Angeles Daily News reported that an estimated 40% of students in California’s community colleges struggle to find their next meal.

 

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. However, 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.

 

In 2024, the California Student Aid Commission published a revealing report on the state of food insecurity among college students. The 2022-2023 survey findings showed a staggering 66% of students experiencing food insecurity, a substantial rise from the 39% reported in the 2018-2019 academic year. This alarming increase highlights the growing challenge of ensuring that students have access to the necessities required for their well-being and academic success.


Food insecurity among college students is a multifaceted issue, influenced by a variety of factors such as employment with inadequate wages, insufficient financial aid, and familial economic conditions. However, the primary driver of this challenge is the cost of housing.

 

In California, the struggle to secure affordable housing is a significant barrier, with rental prices for modest accommodations ranging from $1,360 to $2,649 per month. When combined with other monthly expenses including books, supplies, transportation, and utilities, which can total approximately $400, along with food expenses averaging around $300, the cumulative cost can be substantial. This financial burden, which does not even account for tuition fees, underscores the precarious situation many students face, leading to a heightened risk of food insecurity, poverty and homelessness.

 

The harsh reality faced by college students in California is further compounded by the inadequacy of financial aid and other benefits, which have failed to keep pace with the growing demands of higher education. Shockingly, 62% of students living on campus struggle with food insecurity, a stark reminder that even those who have seemingly secured their basic needs are not immune to this pervasive crisis. The cruel irony is that signing up for a meal plan, a supposed safeguard against hunger, may disqualify students from essential programs like CalFresh, leaving them trapped in a vicious cycle of deprivation and uncertainty.


 CalFresh, known federally as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), is designed to help low-income households access nutritious and healthy foods by providing an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card that functions like a debit card for eligible items. For struggling college students, the program offers a lifeline, with the potential to provide up to $291 per month to help cover the cost of food.

 

However, the path to accessing these critical benefits is fraught with barriers and red tape. CalFresh defines a student as someone between the ages of 18 and 49 who is enrolled in school at least half-time. Meeting these criteria alone is not enough; students must also satisfy additional eligibility requirements known as "Student Exemptions." These exemptions are stringent and often difficult to meet, making it challenging for many college students to qualify for the assistance they so desperately need.

 

The rigid eligibility criteria for CalFresh serve as a stark reminder of the systemic barriers that prevent college students from accessing the support they require to thrive. By forcing students to navigate a complex web of exemptions and requirements, the program inadvertently excludes countless individuals who are struggling to make ends meet while pursuing their education. The work of s CalFresh Advocates at the CalFresh Outreach Centers across colleges and universities, have provided on a mission to assist, advise, and advocate for students navigating the complex CalFresh application process. It is crucial in helping students overcome these hurdles, but the larger issue remains: a system that fails to recognize the unique challenges faced by college students and perpetuates the cycle of food insecurity on campuses across California.

 

Student Requirements


  • Enrolled at least half-time and between ages 18 - 49

  • U.S citizen or Legal Permanent Resident

  • Meet the income requirements for household size (see chart below)

  • Not receiving more than half (11+) meals a week from another source

  • Meet one "student exemption": Work 20+ hours a week

  • Employed at Cal State LA

  • Cal Grant A or B recipient

  • Enrolled in Federal Work Study

  • Enrolled in the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP)

  • Participant in Guardian Scholars Program

  • Participating in a Research or Teaching Assistantship

  • CalWORKs Recipient or Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC)

  • Student with a child between 6 -12 years old with no adequate childcare

  • Unable to work and registered with the Office for Students with Disabilities (OSD)

  • Enrolled in a Local Employment Program that Increases Employability (LPIE) 

People in the Household

Gross Monthly Income

Max CalFresh Allotment

1

$2,430

$291

2

$3,288

$535

3

$4,144

$766

4

$5,000

$973

5

$5,858

$1,155


Solutions to College Hunger

 

As inflation soars, the crisis of campus hunger intensifies, placing an even greater strain on students already struggling to afford necessities. The widening gap between the mounting costs of survival and the limited resources available threatens to engulf an entire generation in a cycle of hunger and hardship. This growing crisis ripples through society, eroding the foundations of opportunity and equality in higher education. Disproportionately affecting marginalized communities, campus hunger perpetuates systemic inequalities and undermines students' ability to succeed academically.  Efforts to combat college food insecurity involve a multi-faceted approach, from providing immediate assistance through food pantries and meal programs to advocating for systemic policy changes that address the root causes of the issue. These initiatives, both on and off campus, are crucial in creating a supportive environment that ensures no student must choose between their basic needs and their education, ultimately fostering a more equitable and accessible higher education landscape.


Food Pantries

 

College food pantries have emerged as a vital resource in the fight against student hunger, offering a lifeline to those struggling to access nutritious meals. These pantries strive to provide a diverse array of healthy food options, going beyond the standard non-perishable items to include fresh produce and culturally relevant choices. By tailoring their offerings to the specific needs and preferences of the student body, these pantries ensure that students can access the nourishment they need to thrive academically and personally. The availability of healthy, culturally appropriate food is crucial in creating a supportive and inclusive environment that recognizes the diverse backgrounds and dietary requirements of today's college students.

 

Food Recovery Agencies

 

In the midst of the college food insecurity crisis, Student LunchBox (SLB) has emerged as a transformative force, pioneering an innovative approach to tackling this pressing issue. Born out of a deep commitment to ensuring that no student goes hungry, SLB has become a lifeline for thousands of college students across Los Angeles County, providing them with not just vital sustenance but also a comprehensive support system that recognizes their unique needs and challenges.

 

At the core of Student LunchBox's (SLB) mission lies a revolutionary approach that addresses both food waste and student hunger in a single, powerful stride. By forging a remarkable partnership with Food Forward, the nation's largest "Fresh Produce" recovery agency, SLB has unlocked an unparalleled opportunity to make a profound impact on the lives of countless college students.

 

Food Forward, renowned for its exceptional work in rescuing fresh, nutritious produce from farms, farmers markets, and other sources, has become an indispensable ally in SLB's fight against food insecurity. Through this collaboration, Food Forward serves as a vital lifeline, providing a staggering 10 tons of perfectly safe and wholesome food every single week – food that would otherwise be destined for landfills, contributing to the ever-growing problem of food waste. The partnership between SLB and Food Forward exemplifies the transformative potential of strategic alliances in addressing complex social issues. By combining their strengths, resources, and shared commitment to creating a more equitable and sustainable food system, these organizations have developed a model that not only feeds hungry students but also combats the environmental and economic costs of food waste.

 

Through its extensive network of partnerships with major colleges and universities throughout Los Angeles County, Student LunchBox has extended its reach to serve over 4,500 students every month. These students hail from a diverse range of institutions, spanning from San Fernando Valley to Long Beach, including CSU Long Beach, CSU Dominguez Hills, CSU Los Angeles, CSU Northridge, Los Angeles Pierce College, Los Angeles Valley College, Long Beach City College, CBD College, Wofford Denius UTLA Center for Entertainment & Media Studies, NYU Los Angeles, Montclair State University in Los Angeles, Emerson College in Los Angeles, and many others.

 

From fresh fruits and vegetables to a wide array of grocery items, whole grains, and protein sources, SLB ensures that students have access to the diverse and nutritious food options they need to thrive both academically and personally. By providing items specifically tailored to their unique circumstances, SLB creates a supportive and nurturing environment that empowers students to focus on their studies and pursue their dreams without the constant worry of where their next meal will come from.

 

But SLB's support goes far beyond simply providing food. The organization understands that college students facing food insecurity often struggle with a host of other challenges, from affording essential toiletries and hygiene kits to accessing suitable clothing and bedding. To address these multifaceted needs, SLB offers a comprehensive range of services tailored to the immediate nutritional needs and overall well-being of the students it serves.

 

In a world where the cost of higher education continues to rise and the specter of food insecurity looms large over countless college students, Student LunchBox stands as a powerful example of what can be achieved when compassion, innovation, and community collaboration come together. Through its tireless efforts to rescue food, forge partnerships, and provide holistic support, SLB is not just feeding students; it is nourishing their minds, bodies, and spirits, one meal at a time.

 

Conclusion

 

As we confront the complex and pervasive issue of food insecurity among college students, it is imperative that we recognize the urgent need for collaborative efforts, policy reforms, and educational initiatives. This crisis extends far beyond the immediate pangs of hunger; it strikes at the very core of educational equity and the promise of a brighter future for all students, regardless of their socioeconomic background.

 

By working together to provide immediate relief through programs like food pantries and meal vouchers, we can help alleviate the day-to-day struggles of students facing food insecurity. However, we must also advocate for long-term solutions that address the root causes of this issue, such as increasing financial aid, creating affordable housing options, and implementing policies that prioritize access to nutritious food on college campuses.

 

Moreover, we must raise awareness about the realities of food insecurity and its profound impact on academic performance, mental health, and social inclusion. By integrating these discussions into our curricula, providing financial literacy programs, and fostering open dialogues about food-related challenges, we can create a supportive environment where students feel empowered to seek help and advocate for change.

 

The fight against college food insecurity is not a simple one, but it is a fight worth undertaking. It requires sustained commitment, compassion, and collaboration from all sectors of society – educational institutions, government bodies, non-profit organizations, and the community at large. By working hand in hand, we can break down the barriers that prevent students from achieving their full potential and create a more just and equitable educational landscape.


This Blog was Prepared by Student LunchBox:


Student LunchBox (SLB) is a 501(c) 3 nonprofit charitable organization committed to fighting food insecurity among college students. We participate in efforts to rescue and recover food and other essentials for economically disadvantaged college students to reduce the hardships of hunger and foster academic success. By addressing the pivotal challenge of food and financial insecurity, Student LunchBox empowers students to achieve their academic goals, unlock their full potential, and successfully graduate from their academic journey. Our partnerships with major colleges and universities in Los Angeles County allow us to serve over 4,500 students monthly, providing college students with vital 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.

Student LunchBox is here to ensure that no student should have to choose between education and access to food. 


 

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