Naomi Curtis was a policy intern with the Oklahoma Policy Institute during the Spring 2019 semester. She is currently a junior at the University of Tulsa studying economics.
The teacher walkout in 2018 brought much attention to the state of public education in Oklahoma, including food insecurity among students. Too many of our children are hungry – 60 percent of Oklahoma’s K-12 students rely on free or reduced lunch and other child nutrition programs to have enough to eat. Once these children transition to college, these programs no longer apply to them–but the hunger stays.
About a third of university students and nearly two out of three community college students nationwide are food insecure, meaning they are uncertain where their next meal will come from. When students are distracted by hunger, they’re less likely to complete their degree on time and at higher risk for unemployment when they leave school.
Some colleges and universities are implementing programs like food pantries and meal swipe programs. These are good first steps to address this problem. The next step is to make sure college students know they might be able to get help putting food on the table through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Most importantly, we need to better understand why so many college students are hungry. What the “typical” college student looks like has changed, and we need to better address their needs.
Food insecurity on college campuses
Being food insecure means having limited access to nutritionally adequate and safe food. There are generally two causes of food insecurity – not enough money for food and not enough places to buy fresh food. Many of Oklahoma’s colleges and universities are located in low-income areas with limited grocery stores. For students who don’t rely on their college meal plan for most of their food, this means getting enough to eat elsewhere can be a challenge.
Non-traditional students and those from low-income families are the most likely to be food insecure. These students are more likely to live away from campus and work while attending school. This distance and additional schedule commitment can make it difficult to access campus food options, such as cafeterias, when they are open. These students are an increasing proportion of all college and university students – 40 percent are older than 25 when they begin higher education, 62 percent work, 28 percent are parents, and 33 percent come from families earning less than $20,000 per year. All of these factors increase the risk of food insecurity for these students.
Universities are stepping up, but there is room for improvement
Many campuses recognize food-insecurity as a problem and are working to combat it. One type of resource offered at some colleges is a campus food pantry. A campus pantry will provide a variety of non-perishable food, and may also offer fresh fruits and vegetables. Additionally, these pantries can carry other items that students might need, such as hygiene products or laundry detergent.
Some campuses have also adopted meal swipe programs that allow students to donate unused meals from their campus meal plan (or “swipes” on their meal card) to provide vouchers for other students who need food. The vouchers are then distributed by a trusted administrator on campus, either directly to other students or through a campus food pantry. At the University of Tulsa (TU), its program pools donated guest meal swipes that administration then distributes to food-insecure students. A student only needs to request to use them at the dining hall: there are no eligibility requirements outside of being a TU student. The ease of using the program increases access to food and decreases stigma.
Schools should educate students about SNAP
During breaks, food-insecure students may find it especially difficult to get enough to eat. Campus food pantries and meal swipe programs are certainly helpful during the semester. During breaks, these programs often aren’t available. Most campus buildings are deserted and dining halls are closed. Making sure students are aware of SNAP and helping them determine if they’re eligible will make sure more students get enough to eat throughout the year.
Many college students who could be accessing this resource are not doing so. In 2016, less than half of the 3 million college students who were potentially SNAP-eligible applied to the program. That could be because these students simply do not know that they are eligible for the program. While most college students are not eligible, there are certain groups of students who could enroll in SNAP. This includes students who are enrolled at least half-time and meet any of the following criteria:
- participate in a federal or state work-study program,
- work at least 20 hours per week, or
- are a parent of a dependent child younger than 6, or a child between 5 and 12 without adequate childcare.
This means many low-income and non-traditional students may be eligible to participate in SNAP. Colleges and universities can reduce hunger on campus by making eligible students aware of the program. They could also help students fill out an application and gather any needed documents.
We must do more to help college students struggling with hunger. Every Oklahoma college student deserves the opportunity to do their best and thrive. However, for too many of our students, hunger is holding them back. Colleges and universities are making strides in using school resources to better help food insecure students on their campuses. Connecting eligible students with SNAP is the next step to making sure students are not being held back by hunger.