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  • Writer's pictureTeam Student LunchBox

College Hunger In California - Problem Statistics

Updated: Mar 21

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 future 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 decade-long issue of hunger on college campuses has escalated over the years, reflecting a growing crisis among students pursuing higher education. According to a 2016 survey conducted by #RealCollege, which included 57 schools and approximately 40,000 respondents, nearly 50% of California community college and university students reported being food insecure in the past 30 days. Furthermore, 60% of respondents reported being housing insecure in the previous year, and 19% reported being homeless in the past year.

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. The report further highlighted that 10.9% of CSU students experienced homelessness at least once in the preceding year. The impact of these hardships extends beyond basic needs, with affected students reporting detrimental effects on both their physical and mental health. This, in turn, has been linked to lower academic performance and an increase in inactive days, where health issues prevent engagement in normal activities like attending classes or work.

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 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. Moreover, a notable 57% of the food insecure students had not previously experienced food insecurity, highlighting a new challenge for those who are managing their finances independently for the first time. This underscores the need for financial literacy programs and better access to information on economic resources, food access, and healthy eating on a budget.

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.

In fact, the California Student Aid Commission’s 2018-2019 Student Expenses and Resources Survey (SEARS) sheds light on the financial burdens that extend far beyond tuition for college students. Surveying a sample of 150,000 students from four-year institutions, the report reveals that, in addition to tuition, students incur over $2,000 per month in expenses for essentials such as housing, food, books, transportation, and other personal needs.

Furthermore, the SEARS spotlight on food insecurity highlights a troubling trend among students. The survey, which was conducted across various educational segments, including community colleges, state universities, and private institutions, found that nearly one-third of students face food insecurity. This alarming statistic underscores the reality that a significant portion of students are struggling to afford basic necessities, which can have profound implications on their academic success and overall well-being. The data emphasizes the need for increased support and resources to ensure that all students have access to the nutrition they require to thrive in their educational endeavors.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, food insecurity was already a pressing concern, with an estimated 40% of students in California’s community colleges struggling to find their next meal. The advent of the pandemic exacerbated this crisis, as students grappled with job losses, reduced work hours, and diminished access to vital campus resources.

The surge in applications to local food banks, many from students and their families, signals a distressing trend. While the full impact of the pandemic on college food insecurity remains to be quantified, the data at hand points to a situation deteriorating far beyond previous projections.

In response to this rising issue, Governor Gavin Newsom has taken proactive measures, enabling colleges to reallocate funds to establish campus pantries, providing a lifeline for students in dire need. To date, out of 115 community colleges, 46 have implemented pantry programs, and 26 continue to operate amidst the pandemic and subsequent campus shutdowns.

In light of the soaring inflation rates, the issue of campus hunger is not just persisting; it’s intensifying. The cost of living continues to climb, placing an even greater strain on students already struggling to afford basic necessities. As prices rise, the gap between available resources and the needs of students widens, threatening to engulf an entire generation in a cycle of hunger and hardship.

In conclusion, the battle against food insecurity in California’s higher education system is a critical one, demanding immediate and sustained intervention. Comprehensive research and robust data are essential to grasp the full scope of this challenge. It is imperative that effective solutions be swiftly enacted to guarantee that every student has reliable access to nutritious food and secure housing, ensuring their academic journey is not hindered by the pangs of hunger.

To access the latest articles on college food insecurity, kindly visit our blogs.

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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