The Hidden Hunger on College Campuses, Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Laura McKenna wrote an informative piece for us detailing how “more than half of community-college students struggle with food insecurity.” A reader counters her many references to “hunger” by pointing to a study:

The truth is, there’s an “obesity epidemic” at community colleges:

That [2010] study found a higher prevalence of overweight and obesity among students attending the two-year colleges, with a particularly sharp difference for females. Females at two-year colleges also displayed less healthy behavior than their counterparts at four-year colleges, including lower physical activity levels, higher consumption of unhealthy foods, and greater sedentary activity (television viewing). Fewer differences were found between men attending two-year and four-year colleges. Importantly, these disparities were found even when controlling for race, ethnicity, and age (Laska et al.).

This reader makes a key comeback:

Obesity is often the result of malnourishment. The cheapest food available are things like top ramen and macaroni and cheese from the dollar store, and a package of cookies. My high school students in poverty mostly eat at school and what they can get at the dollar store. Yes, they are overweight because they have high blood sugar, which tips them into weight-accumulation, rather than being able to actually burn the calories they consume. That’s why they’re fat: their food is not providing them with the nutrition they actually need.

But the cheapest food doesn’t have to be the super convenient, unhealthy, dollar store variety; it just takes the extra effort of cooking. Here’s one of countless guides out there:

Many of the meals in Good and Cheap: Eat Well on $4/Day [the average daily amount provided by food stamps], cost less than 75¢ cents per serving to make: the 132-page book features recipes for 65¢ vegetable jambalaya, 60¢ lentil soup, and 70¢ banana pancakes.

Not everyone can afford to have a kitchen, especially students, but this rice cooker at Target, for example, costs $14. And this reader cooked communally with his fellow college students:

This is nothing new; the choices are. Millennials did not invent hunger.

When I was in college, in the the Baby Boomer 1970s, everyone was in various stages of hungry. Not everyone had parent-paid meal plans at the on-campus cafeteria. Plus, many of us our freshman year used whatever money we did have for beer, pot, and what was then super cheap fast food.

By sophomore year, we connected some dots, pooled our money, and had group dinners at the one house just off campus that four in the group rented. To this day, I cannot eat lentil soup, spaghetti, or granola. It didn’t help that few people we knew had a car, so ten-speeds were the mode of travel, which made us even hungrier, though svelte. Three guys from our extended group only had one real decent meal all week: eggs and a cheap cut of steak on Sunday. They lived for Sundays.

A friend and I wised up after college, working in a small family-owned restaurant that took pity on us, fed us, and even let us take stuff home. Otherwise, we would’ve spent our entire 20s starving. I didn’t know one single chubby person my age, which held true into the 1980s.

I’ve wondered if some of us didn’t glom onto TV food shows in the late 1980s/1990s as some sort of Pavlovian response to 4+ years of constant hunger. For what it’s worth, my dad had endured the same thing in college decades earlier, opting for popcorn and water some meals so he could send money home to his mom from his on-campus job.

Another reader can also relate to food insecurity:

Yep, I lived that existence for a couple of years. It was one of the less-pleasant periods in my adult life. Hilariously, at the time, Oregon’s food-assistance program disallowed benefits to anybody receiving any federal aid for any type of college whatsoever, no exceptions. I moved to the city, starved for four months, got an Oregon Trail card, ate decently for one year, and then since I’d enrolled half-time at community college in the meantime, was automatically disqualified from renewing my benefits the next year.

I chose to stick with school, and in truth, with the aid money I received and a slightly-better job (delivering pizza) than I’d had before, it wasn’t as bad as it had been ... but it wasn’t exactly pleasant, either. Let’s just say I ate a lot of free pizza to fill in the gaps.