Many community college students struggle to afford food

'These are kids who are working full time and going to college and still are hungry'

Fifty-two percent of community college students lack food security, according to a recent study by University of Wisconsin-Madison's Sara Goldrick-Rab.

A survey of about 4,000 students across 10 community colleges nationwide found that more than half suffered from some level of food insecurity. About 20% were in the most severe category of food insecurity, marked by "multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake." And a full 22% reported limiting or skipping meals because they couldn't afford to eat, Laura McKenna reports for The Atlantic.

How many hungry students are on your campus?

Goldrick-Rab's research also included focus groups with the respondents, as well as tracking 50 individuals over six years.

She found two types of students in financial distress: those who entered college already dealing with food insecurity and those whose education expenses pushed them into financial need.

While Goldrick-Rab acknowledges that a sample of 10 schools may not seem nationally representative, she contends that her report is the only one so far to quantify food insecurity among college students. In 2017, she plans to expand the research to more schools.

Hunger means lower retention, graduation rates

When students are hungry, it's more difficult for them to concentrate in class. When students can't afford food, they work longer hours and study less to earn more money. Some take an entire semester or even years off from college to earn enough. These challenges lead to lower graduation and retention rates.

"The nontraditional student is the new normal," says Elizabeth Lower-Basch, a policy director at the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP). "We shouldn't be surprised that this group is reporting food shortages."

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

More and more students enter school supporting families, are older, and are low-income, she says.

Financial aid often is not enough to cover costs of food, housing, childcare, and other essentials, which together can make up two thirds of community college expenses, says Amy Ellen Duke-Benfield, a CLASP senior policy analyst.

Even "traditional" students are likely to need assistance with food. Approximately half of high school students qualify for reduced-price or free meals, and their financial situation rarely changes when they enroll in college.

Breaking down barriers to aid

Just 20% of students with low to very-low food security in Goldrick-Rab's study were enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), although many more were eligible. She says signing up for SNAP can be complicated, time-intensive, and requires students to work.

To ease the process, many schools are helping students fill out the extensive paperwork as well as training financial aid staff to guide students through various government programs. Other schools have trained faculty to look for signs of hungry or homeless students.

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Some schools even try to identify students before they enroll, asking about housing and food security on admissions forms.

Leaders at Bergen Community College, for example, reached out to nonprofit Center for Food Action (CFA). Center staff set up an on-campus food pantry that provides three days' of groceries to students, adjunct faculty, and staff twice a week. Instant meals are given to those who need immediate food. The program also connects students with local social services agencies.

"These aren't people who are sitting around not doing anything," says Lisa Pitz, a CFA program director. "These are kids who are working full time and going to college and still are hungry ... I just hope that these students get good paying jobs when they graduate" (McKenna, The Atlantic, 1/14).

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