Fewer Skipped Meals
A new student group takes aim at food insecurity on campus.
Rebecca Leighton (B.S. '15, M.P.H. '17) was a graduate student at the U's School of Public Health when an assignment required her to come up with a solution for a community nutrition problem. The exercise was intended to give students some practice doing professional tasks, including needs assessments and budgets. But Leighton’s project, which was researching nutrition issues on campus, took a real-life turn when she discovered a growing, but still largely hidden, problem: Many students are eating nonnutritious foods because that’s all they can afford. Still others are eating little or nothing because they don’t have enough money to buy food at all.
Student hunger has for years been an increasingly troubling issue on college campuses across the country. Researchers continually release studies trying to grasp its scope, including a comprehensive 2018 survey by Temple University and the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, which reported that 36 percent of students at 66 surveyed U.S. universities and colleges don’t have enough to eat. Leighton was alerted to the U’s hunger problem when, during her preliminary research, she read Boynton Health’s 2015 College Student Health Survey and found that 17.5 percent of undergraduates were “food insecure,” meaning they worried about running out of food before they could afford more. Ten percent reported they had run out of food in the past 12 months.
Knowing how important good nutrition is to academic success, Leighton decided to devote her master’s thesis to researching food insecurity and began interviewing students to better understand how to help. “People know that not eating healthy food is bad for your body,” she explains. “But studying nutrition, I’ve also learned how constantly worrying about where your next meal is coming from interferes with students’ ability to focus in class and learn.” The stories students told Leighton made the reality of being hungry while trying to learn painfully clear: “I skip meals, usually lunch and breakfast,” one student said in a survey. “I mean, there are days where I don’t have to go out. Then I’ll just not move so much so I don’t get so hungry.”
Having read that many other Big 10 schools had opened free food pantries for students, Leighton started a student group called Nutritious U, which hosted two pilot pantries in early 2017. Both were so successful, Boynton Health gave the pantry a permanent home in Coffman Union. All students are welcome to visit the pantry, which is open three days each month and offers primarily healthy, fresh foods rather than canned and boxed fare. Nutritious U distributed 32,668 pounds of food and served 2,573 individual students—for a total of 5,611 total visits during the seven times the food pantry was open in 2017.
Why student hunger is escalating on college campuses is not fully understood, but many advocates believe the problem is more widespread than the data shows. Rising college costs and insufficient financial aid and scholarships are usually to blame. But unpacking the problem, experts say, requires a closer look. Low-income student enrollment has increased in recent years, as many colleges and universities have expanded needs-based scholarship and grants programs. At the U, for example, financial support for low-income students has risen to about $148 million per academic year, compared with $130 million six years ago. The additional funds are believed to have helped boost four-year graduation rates for low-income students from 31 percent in 2009 to 60 percent in 2017.
But that additional support is often not enough to cover students’ expenses. As a result, those students experience food insecurity the most. “The U tries to help as much as we can, but we know some students are skipping meals or not eating, and that has a major impact on their academic performance,” says Bob McMaster, the University’s vice provost and dean of undergraduate education. “One thing we know is that, as soon as a family makes $75,000 or so a year, the student gets a much smaller grant. So, I bet if we dug into the data, we would find that a lot of middle-income students are food insecure too.”
While the Nutritious U pantry is helping alleviate hunger, it is not a solution to the larger problem, which will take commitment and creative collaboration from many different angles. Currently, McMaster is working with the University of Minnesota Foundation to bring in more need-based money so students can, ideally, get by without having to work too many hours and/or take out loans. Leighton, too, is focused on the future and, in addition to running the pantry, she is researching ways to address the root causes of hunger. “I’m glad the pantry has been a success,” she says. “But my goal is not to expand it. What I want for students is that they don’t need it anymore.”
Meleah Maynard (B.A. ’91) is a freelance writer and editor in Minneapolis.