Study: 71% of students say lack of money affects their eating, grocery shopping habits

About one in four report eating less than they should, cutting portion sizes

More students are struggling through—or dropping out of—college because they cannot afford a basic need: food.

The findings come from new research from the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, write researchers Sara Goldrick-Rab, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor, and Katharine Broton, a Ph.D. candidate at the school. Beginning in 2008, the duo surveyed 3,000 undergraduates receiving Pell grants at public two- and four-year colleges in Wisconsin.

They found that 71% of students reported changing their eating or food shopping habits for a lack of money, and 27% of students said they could not afford to buy food, ate less than they should, or downsized their meals because of cost.

Addressing student homelessness and hunger

Further, 7% of two-year college students and 5% of four-year college students said they have skipped eating for an entire day because they could not afford to.

More recent research has supported their findings, write Goldrick-Rab and Broton. Ethnographic research by Harvard University's Anthony Jack—a Wisconsin HOPE Lab affiliate—found that even at elite institutions some students turn to off-campus food banks.

In a presentation to the National Commission on Hunger, Golderick-Rab and Broton urged the government and educational institutions to align educational and hunger policies.

When low-income students move from high school to college, free meal and Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits do not follow them. 

Creating a National School Lunch Program at public higher education institutions and enabling students to use financial aid to pay for college expenses may decrease time to completion for low-income students, Golderick-Rab and Broton write.

Additionally, SNAP should be revamped to:

  • Align it with need-based financial aid;
  • Allow college credit to count toward work requirements; and
  • Remove logistical application barriers.

"Universities and colleges themselves must do more to identify and deal with the problem of on-campus food insecurity," they say, by identifying student need and creating services such as campus food pantries. "These institutions need to educate students not only about the issue of hunger but also the resources that they can access," (Golderick-Rab/Broton, The Conversation, 9/25).

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