But the blight of food insecurity among college students is real, and a new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), a nonpartisan congressional watchdog, highlights the breadth of those affected. There are potentially millions of students at risk of being food insecure, which means they do not have access to nutritious, affordable food, the report says. It is the first time the federal government has acknowledged food insecurity on campus in a significant way. The federal government spends billions of dollars on higher education each year, and this report finds that some students are at risk of dropping out because they cannot eat, although there aren’t good data on just how many.
Existing studies vary in how they describe the scale of the problem. “Nationally representative survey data that would support direct estimates of the prevalence of food insecurity among college students do not exist,” the report says. So the GAO conducted a review of 31 studies that met their criteria—meaning they had been conducted in the United States since 2007 and did not have severe methodological limitations. Twenty-two of those 31 studies estimate that more than 30 percent of students are food insecure.
“[The report] put it very clearly for us that we can see that especially first-time students, first-gen students, students who are raising children, single parents, face increasing obstacles to be able to complete that critical college degree,” Senator Patty Murray, the top Democrat on the Senate’s education committee, told me. The report was in response to a letter sent to the GAO on behalf of Murray, Senator Debbie Stabenow, Senator Edward Markey, and Senator Elizabeth Warren last year.
One chief way that campuses have been addressing hunger is by building food pantries on campus, but Sara Goldrick-Rab, a higher-education professor at Temple University and a leading scholar on campus hunger, told me that those only scratch the surface of the issue. “When there’s a food pantry, there’s somebody who is acknowledging the problem,” she says, but advocates have been fighting for a more systemic response.
The government can address this issue systemically through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, commonly known as food stamps), the report says, but it adds that “almost 2 million at-risk students”—defined as students who are low income or first generation, are raising children, or have another, similar risk factor—didn’t receive SNAP benefits in 2016, even though they potentially could have.
That could be because those students didn’t know they were eligible: The government restricts students who attend college at least half-time from receiving the benefits, but certain students are exempt from that restriction. The information that most schools and SNAP offices provide students about the program is shoddy, says Samuel Chu, a national organizer for Mazon, an advocacy organization focused on eradicating hunger. “There are very specific ways and accessible ways that students can access SNAP,” he says, but even local SNAP offices are often unaware. For example, students who meet the basic criteria for SNAP eligibility and are younger than 18 or older than 50, or who have children, or who work a minimum of 20 hours a week are also eligible to receive the benefit. The GAO implored the Food and Nutrition Service, which administers SNAP, to improve information about student eligibility and share that information with its local offices.
Of course, the SNAP program is dependent on government funding, which makes it subject to budget cuts or unforeseen events such as the ongoing partial government shutdown. If the shutdown continues for a couple more weeks, SNAP may run out of funds for the 38 million Americans who receive its benefits.
Naturally, the report focuses heavily on low-income students, as they are perhaps those most likely to experience food insecurity. But Goldrick-Rab notes that they aren’t the only students who are going hungry. Middle-class students, those who are “too rich for Pell and too poor to afford college,” struggle as well. And they may not be as likely to use things such as the food pantry.
Murray told me that addressing food insecurity is one of her top priorities as Congress negotiates a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, the major federal law governing colleges and universities. “Often we just talk about the tuition costs and dealing with that,” she says. “It has to be broader than that—[it has to be] all of the costs that come to a student as they try to complete college, including food and housing.”
Goldrick-Rab put it more bluntly. The report shows “that food insecurity is a college-completion issue,” she says. “We’re undermining our federal investment in financial aid by not paying attention to this. We have to stop pretending like living expenses are not educational expenses.”