A hidden hunger crisis is playing out across college campuses throughout the United States, according to the US Government Accountability Office (GAO).
The nonpartisan organization looked at 31 studies on hunger among university students and calculated that up to 30% don’t have enough food to eat, a problem that both impairs their ability to effectively learn, and deprives them of an essential human right.
Another survey found that around one-quarter of students reported going hungry on a regular basis.
The problem is fueled by the escalating cost of higher education, low-paying jobs, barriers to welfare programs, and a lack of awareness, according to the report.
And it could get even worse as the government shutdown in the US approaches its fourth week, the Atlantic reports. If the government isn’t reopened by the end of February, food stamp benefits are expected to be suspended.
“[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 the Atlantic.
College students are often generalized as having access to their parent’s bank accounts and to food courts teeming with meal options, but the reality is more nuanced. Around 40% of undergraduates and 76% of graduate students work at least 30 hours per week, and nearly 20% have children that they have to support, the Atlantic reports.
Further, 42% of students who live independent of their parent’s live in poverty, compared to 17% of dependent students.
“Improving college access, equity, and completion requires addressing the circumstances and needs of independent students, who are the new college majority,” said Barbara Gault, executive director of Institute of Women’s Policy Institute, in a press release. “Independent students’ complex schedules, and their serious financial and family responsibilities, require us to rethink student supports, financial aid, and higher education policy to ensure their success,”
In the report, GAO makes several suggestions for addressing the problem.
First, a public awareness campaign should be launched to spread awareness about eligibility for food stamps. GAO estimates that more than 2 million students are missing out on food stamps.
The problem of hunger on campus also has to be illuminated. As Senator Murray noted, the most marginalized students are often the most likely to experience hunger. But even students coming from middle-class backgrounds are missing meals, according to the report, stuck in a situation where they’re too rich to receive education grants and food stamps, but too poor to afford meals.
Next, college campuses need to take food insecurity more seriously, providing food options to those who are going hungry. Students who are unable to get a nutritious diet suffer in their school work, which undermines the very premise of higher education.
Some college campuses are building and stocking food pantries for low-income students, which is a good first step, but should be accompanied by guaranteed access to meals.
Finally, food access and education need to go hand-in-hand, according to the authors.
“Food insecurity is a college-completion issue,” Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor at Temple University and an expert campus hunger, told the Atlantic. “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.”