Hunger Among College Students

The image of the “poor starving college student” is somewhat ubiquitous when people think of the college experience. But this conflicts wildly with the “freshman fifteen” folk belief that every college student gains fifteen pounds in their first year of schooling. This can be due to having a meal plan that includes either an abundance of food or simply less healthy choices, or partying too often and getting a dad bod.

Sadly, the freshman fifteen is becoming less and less common as food insecurity among college students is on the rise.

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Food insecurity comes in many forms, but the way it affects most college students is that they don’t know when they’ll get enough money to have their next meal. The struggle of rising tuition costs and the plummeting budgets for public institutions means that the burden of paying for college is the student’s responsibility. And while they should be in class, focusing on their studies, they are instead having to balance a job on top of their course schedule in order to have money for bills to keep the lights on and the water running, let alone food.

Even students living on campus can face this struggle. A meal plan is not included in tuition, or room costs. In many cases, meal plans are thousands of dollars extra. From personal experience I can tell you that sometimes meal plans downright suck. The price caps for items at each meal time is too low and food prices too high to adequately feed a busy student. We need our energy! We need our brain food! $7 for lunch when half a sandwich is $4 and a drink is $3 is not going to cut it any longer. I personally know many students who have opted out of a meal plan simply because the cost was too much, and they go hungry in order to save on groceries.

As an off campus student, I’ve had to make the same types of choices. What can I go without so that I can buy my dog his food? What foods can I use as the bare minimum so I can afford the art supplies I’m required to have this semester? I have to get to work, so I need to be able to put gas in my car, so that means putting less fuel in my own body. I’m ravenously hungry nearly all the time because I don’t have a whole lot of food to eat, and when I do, I ration it. The psychological effects of rationing make people even hungrier. This anxiety over food makes me hungry, and anxiety already makes me hungry in the first place.

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It’s like being double hungry. And students shouldn’t have to worry about their next meal when their next test is more important.

But that’s another good point. Even though they’re trying to scrimp and save to pay for school, many students will miss class because they’re too tired from hunger or improper diet. I know too many students who have skipped dinner (and lunch, and breakfast) to take time to study, but they’re so fatigued come test day that their grades don’t reflect the amount of studying they put in.

It’s just outrageous, and I think a lot of college students can relate. We’ve had to start a food bank for students on my campus because of the hunger crisis going on among us. With all the money we spend on sports programs or unnecessary new buildings, or coaches salaries, some of that money could go towards a better food program for students.

And before anyone says that college students have always had to struggle for food, need I remind you that minimum wage jobs (which are jobs for college kids to pay for school, right?) haven’t kept up with inflation or rising tuition costs. I’ve added up all my costs (rent, electricity, water, internet, phone bill, dog food, car insurance, student loans, and gas money) and even though I get paid slightly above minimum wage, I would still have to work 44 hours a week to just scrape by. Notice I didn’t include any grocery money, no money for emergency work on my car, or an emergency vet trip for Brewster, or an emergency doctor visit for myself, or even any money to save.

Doing the math of how much time I would spent at work (44 hrs), in class (24 hrs, not counting extra studio time or homework), and sleeping (8 hrs a night like the doctor recommends!!), I would be left with 6.3 hours per day to do the following: cook food, eat the food, do my homework, go to the studios, shower and other personal hygiene, walk the dog, commuting time to and from work and class, or any shopping that needs to be done. Not to mention having a balanced social life, which psychologists suggest helps to make a person happier, or relaxing or working out, both of which doctors also suggest help a person be happier and live longer.

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As someone with chronic and severe depression and anxiety, writing this post alone has made me want to cry more than once, both from desperation and anger. As it is, I can only work part time in order to balance my school schedule, and my extra student loan money is paying my rent, but that money is going to run out soon. I understand that there is a lot of anxiety involved in becoming an independent adult, but this is wrong.

No young person seeking higher education should have to worry about where their next meal is coming from, whether they have enough hours at work to pay for their rent and tuition and have enough left over for food, whether they need to get a second job or not. Whether they need to ask their likely also struggling parents for help. How many students need to go hungry before Americans and our representatives take action?

Find a local food pantry, see if your nearest university or community college has a food bank, and donate non-perishables. The future of our young scholars depends on having a full belly.