Food insecurity amongst college students is an ever present reality on college campuses.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), food insecurity is defined as the “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.”
With student demographics constantly changing, college tuition continuing to rise, and many students relying heavily on financial needs to obtain their degree, it can be said that colleges students are a particularly vulnerable population. A 2018 survey conducted by the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University and the Wisconsin HOPE Lab found that 36% of college students are considered “food insecure,” mainly students were not adequately eating.
With the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen limited research regarding the real-time effects this has had on students’ ability to secure basic necessities. The rates of food insecurity has increased dramatically since the pandemic with the continued decline of the economy. Thus, begs the question, “What are colleges and universities doing to ensure food insecurity does not become a major issue?”
Colleges and universities have taken huge strides in the development and implementation of sustainability plans and programs. However, a recent analysis of campus sustainability plans found that many only typically address discrete functional areas such as energy use, transportation, housing and food (White, 2014). As these plans address both environmental and economic aspects for improving sustainability, they tend to omit the real social understanding of these topics, such as the effects of college student food insecurity. This raises a major concern about our campus sustainability efforts.
So, you must be asking yourself, “how can colleges and universities deliberately address the issue of food insecurity?”
In recent years, higher education policy and student health scholars have been paying close attention to food insecurity. Results from these studies have varied greatly among those who have attempted to measure the prevalence of student food insecurity among students in US colleges and universities (White, 2020). Several of the studies have found that 15% to 59% of students experience some degree of food insecurity (White, 2020). Given the efforts to support sustainability as well to create more equitable communities, we can see how these findings may bring about some caution. According to White (2020), Food insecurity among college students is incompatible with a holistic perspective of sustainability that includes socially equitable outcomes. A necessary first step is to understand food sustainability characteristics.
This is a challenge; however, many campuses have developed goals and objects within their sustainability plans to provide students with a concrete understanding of campus food options.
Here at Auburn University, the Office of Sustainability has taken an active role in helping students understand the importance of their food options. Tiger Dining leads Auburn University’s efforts to leverage our purchasing power to help transform our food system, support our local food economy, and enhance the educational experience for our students. In addition, Tiger Dining strives to improve dining operations to reduce negative environmental impacts on campus. Together these efforts boost our local economy, improve personal well-being, and reduce risks to our environment (Auburn University Office of Sustainability, 2020).The basic elements of food sustainability in a college or university campus context must account for the ecological, economic and socially just or equitable aspects of food… put into more descriptive terms, campus food choices should be nutritious, appropriately sourced (eco-friendly), affordable and accessible. Those who seek to have a meal on campus ought easily to find options that reflect these characteristics (White, 2020).
Understanding student food insecurity can be essential in creating plans towards helping students and supporting sustainability at colleges and universities. For many students, food insecurity may only last for a brief time but unfortunately, hunger can continue for many students having a continued hinderance on their college experience. As we have seen within the COVID-19 pandemic, change can happen suddenly and dramatically, creating great uncertainty. Food insecurity should not be something that continues. Colleges and universities are uniquely positioned to assist students in dealing with food insecurity through a multitude of campus initiatives such as, campus food pantries and meal donation or voucher programs. One such program is Swipe Out Hunger which is a meal donation program that empowers students to give back to their community by donating unused meal swipes to students in needs (Swipe Out Hunger, 2020). The growth of such programs support the severity of food insecurity and push for colleges and universities to address food insecurity issues. Colleges and universities must continue to address food insecurity by diversifying student resources to acknowledge the presence of food insecurity. It is evident that food insecurity is increasingly becoming a larger issue and in order to improve sustainability, colleges and universities must be innovative and committed to their students. Moreover, students’ input is critical as campuses have various campus cultures addressing these matters.
With the return of students on campus since the hasty departure due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is imperative that colleges and universities take heed the needs of students dealing with real or potential fears of being back on campus amidst several factors such as food insecurity, homelessness, and financial barriers.
One way Auburn is helping students deal with creating sustainable needs is through the Office of Inclusion and Diversity’s Cross-Cultural Center for Excellence also known as the CCCE for short. The CCCE provides students with the opportunity to learn more about establishing sustainability solutions in developing inclusive communities. Through an array of programs and activities, students are able to engage in dialogue, develop leadership skills, and build collaborative relationships that will help them be effective in an increasingly global society. The CCCE is located on the 2nd floor in Suite 2103 in the Auburn University Student Center.
In concluding, colleges and universities must continue to provide sustainability solutions that will aid in dismantling these barriers that hinder many students from attaining their degree. The conversations about food insecurity and sustainability have gained national attention yet, there is still more work to be done in order to fully create equitable sustainable campus communities. Additional thinking on how to combat food insecurity amidst various other issues students face will be imperative in pushing more sustainable efforts in the near future.
The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice (2018). “Projects.” Retrieved from https://hope4college.com/projects/
United States Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service. (2019). Definitions of food security. Retrieved from https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/food-nutrition-assistance/food-security-in-the-us/definitions-of-food-security.aspx
White, S.S. (2014), “Campus sustainability plans in the United States: where, what and how to evaluate?”, International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, Vol. 15 No. 2, pp. 228-241.
White, S.S. (2020), “Student food insecurity and the social equity pillar of campus sustainability”, International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, Vol. 21 No. 5, pp. 861-875
Post contributed by Sean Hembrick, Coordinator for Equity and Inclusive Excellence, Office of Inclusion & Diversity
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