Expert Commentary

College student hunger: How access to food can impact grades, mental health

This collection of research looks at who on college campuses lacks access to food, especially health foods, and how going hungry can impact students' grades and mental health.

college students hunger food insecurity pantry
(U.S. Air Force)

Just a few years ago, the College and University Food Bank Alliance, which helps schools establish food pantries, had 184 members. By early 2019, though, the number had more than tripled to 700-plus members.

As tuition rises and the other costs of college go up, campus administrators are forced to face a troubling reality: Many college students don’t get enough to eat. In response, hundreds of schools — from community colleges to Ivy League universities — have opened food pantries or stores selling subsidized groceries. Many students ages 18 to 49 are not eligible for the federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps.

At Cornell University, the student-run Anabel’s Grocery attracted about 2,000 unique customers within the first several months, according to the student newspaper. The store offers “low-cost groceries for all Cornell students and subsidies for those who qualify.” At the Knights Helping Knights Pantry at the University of Central Florida, students can pick up five free food items a day. Portland Community College opened pantries on all four of its campuses and created a co-op with free school supplies, bus passes, clothes and other items.

Academic research shows that a substantial percentage of college students experience “food insecurity,” a lack of access to adequate amounts of food, especially healthy foods. The proportion appears to vary by institution type and among student groups, with racial and ethnic minorities being most likely to skip meals or go hungry. The research also suggests students who don’t have enough food are more likely to have low grades and poor health.

Below is a sampling of academic research on these subjects.


“College Students and SNAP: The New Face of Food Insecurity in the United States”: From the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy and Temple University’s College of Education, published in the American Journal of Public Health, December 2019. By Nicholas Freudenberg, Sara Goldrick-Rab and Janet Poppendieck.

College students are a new group at risk for food insecurity — a problem explained by five trends, according to this analysis of academic studies, news media reports and three researchers’ experiences studying and addressing food insecurity at multiple universities.

The five trends:

  • A higher proportion of college students are from households with incomes at or below the poverty line than were in the past.
  • College is more expensive now than in the past.
  • The purchasing power of the Pell grant, a federal grant for lower-income students, has fallen over time.
  • It’s tougher to pay for college while working. “Coupled with rising college prices, students must work nearly full-time to afford full-time community college,” write the authors. “To avoid paying for benefits, today’s employers, including universities, often divide fulltime hours across multiple parttime workers, contributing to the growing number of students working several jobs to make ends meet.”
  • Higher education institutions have less money to spend on student support programs. State funding, the authors write, “has decreased by 25% per student over the last 30 years, and states have cut $9 billion from higher education in the last 10 years alone. In public universities, budget cuts have led to significant reductions in student services.”

The researchers find that a number of individual colleges try to help students get food by introducing a range of programs, including food pantries, subsidized cafeteria meals and emergency loans and grants. However, the researchers recommend that the government and schools work to boost the number of college students who participate in the federal Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, commonly referred to as SNAP or food stamps. “Because food pantries are often the first point of contact between food-insecure students and university resources, they can become hubs for screening and enrolling eligible students in SNAP and other public benefits, publicizing affordable meals on campus, and engaging students in organizing for food justice as well as distributing food,” the authors write.


“Hunger in Higher Education: Experiences and Correlates of Food Insecurity among Wisconsin Undergraduates from Low-Income Families”: From the University of Iowa and University of California, San Diego, published in Social Sciences, September 2018. By Katharine M. Broton, Kari E. Weaver and Minhtuyen Mai.

This study finds that the college students who are most likely to report experiencing the lowest levels of food security are racial and ethnic minorities and those who live off campus, attend college in urban areas and grew up in homes without reliable supplies of food.

The three researchers analyzed data from a longitudinal study of 3,000 low-income, undergraduate students who attended 42 public colleges and universities in Wisconsin in 2008. They also conducted in-depth interviews with a random sample of 50 of those students approximately every six months between 2008 and 2010 and then each year through 2012. In late 2009, almost 1,400 of the individuals studied answered another round of questions about their experiences buying and finding adequate food.

Some other key takeaways: “Among a sample of traditional-age students from low-income families, we found that nearly 1 in 3 are cutting or skipping meals, eating less than they should and going without food due to limited resources. All of the students received financial aid and most worked and received support from family, but they still struggled to get enough to eat. Students identified a lack of money and time — rather than a lack of knowledge regarding cooking or budgeting — as major barriers to their food security.”


“Experiences With ‘Acute’ Food Insecurity Among College Students”: From San Diego State University, published in the Educational Researcher, January 2018. By J. Luke Wood and Frank Harris III.

This study looks at which groups of college students are most likely to experience food insecurity. The analysis, based on survey data from 6,103 students in southern California, found that multiethnic and black students were most likely to say they have “challenges with hunger” — an acute form of food insecurity. Sixteen percent of black students and 16.5 percent of multiethnic students reported going hungry compared to 10.4 percent of Latino students and 9.2 percent of white and Asian students. The study suggests some students who lack food may also lack stable housing or struggle with transportation and health issues. Colleges with food pantries “may also consider having additional services such as bus passes, free health resources, and job boards,” the authors write.


“Going Without: An Exploration of Food and Housing Insecurity Among Undergraduates”: From the University of Iowa and Temple University, published in the Educational Researcher, December 2017. By Katharine M. Broton and Sara Goldrick-Rab.

This study looks at data on food insecurity taken from surveys representing the experiences of more than 30,000 students attending 121 colleges and universities in 26 states. More than half of undergraduates reported food-access problems. Between 11 percent and 38 percent of students enrolled in community colleges reported “very low” levels of food security, characterized by disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake. Half of community college students also reported living in unstable housing situations.

“Efforts to increase college completion rates must be broadened to include attention to material hardship and shed light on this all-too-often hidden cost of college attendance,” the authors wrote. “Stereotypes of undergraduates eating ramen noodles or couch surfing work against this.”


“The Prevalence of Food Insecurity and Its Association with Health and Academic Outcomes among College Freshmen”: From the University of Florida and nine other universities, published in Advances in Nutrition, 2017. By Aseel El Zein, et al.

This is another study focusing on food insecurity among college freshmen, who generally are learning to live independently after a lifetime of depending on parents and other family members. Almost 900 students from eight U.S. colleges participated, 19 percent of whom were classified as food insecure. The researchers found that students who did not have access to adequate food “showed significantly higher perceived stress and disordered eating behaviors and lower sleep quality.” These students also were more likely to have grade-point averages below a 3.0.


“Student Hunger on Campus: Food Insecurity Among College Students and Implications for Academic Institutions”: From University of Maryland School of Public Health and University of Maryland Dining Services, published in the American Journal of Health Promotion, July 2017. By Devon C. Payne-Sturges, Allison Tjaden, Kimberly M. Caldeira, Kathryn B. Vincent and Amelia M. Arria.

This study found that 15 percent of undergraduates surveyed at a public university in the mid-Atlantic reported food insecurity and that another 16 percent were at risk. The researchers found evidence that students who either experienced food insecurity or were at risk were “more likely to report their overall health as fair, poor, or very poor and reported lower energy levels compared with food secure students. Food insecure students however reported more frequent depression symptoms (little interest, feeling down, feeling tired, poor appetite, and feeling bad about oneself) and that they experienced disruptions in academic work as a result of depression symptoms.” Students reporting problems accessing food were more likely to live off campus and receive financial aid.


“Factors Related to the High Rates of Food Insecurity Among Diverse, Urban College Freshmen”: From Arizona State University and the University of Minnesota, published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 2016. By Meg Bruening, Stephanie Brennhofer, Irene van Woerden, Michael Todd and Melissa Laska.

This paper suggests that a high proportion of college freshmen living in dorms at one of the nation’s largest public universities do not have adequate food and are more likely to report health problems such as anxiety and depression. Of the 209 freshman who participated in the study, 32 percent reported food insecurity in the previous month and 37 percent reported it in the previous three months. “Students who rarely consumed breakfast, students who rarely ate home-cooked meals, and students with higher levels of depression were significantly more likely to report food insecurity in the past three months,” the authors wrote.


“Food Insecurity Among Community College Students: Prevalence and Association With Grade Point Average”: From American University and Morgan State University, published in the Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 2015. By Maya E. Maroto, Anastasia Snelling and Henry Linck.

This food-access study involves students at an urban community college and a suburban community college. Sixty percent of study participants from the urban community college reported lacking adequate food compared to 53 percent of study participants at the suburban community college. Black, Hispanic and Asian students were more likely to have food-access problems than white students. Meanwhile, students battling food insecurity were much more likely to have lower grade-point averages.


Looking for more research on college students? Check out our posts on college hazing, guns on college campuses and how winning in college sports can generate new revenue for athletic programs.

About The Author