College Students Struggle with Food Insecurity

Authored by Jacquelyn N. Heuer, M.A. Doctoral Student, Department of Anthropology, University of South Florida

Food insecurity, the lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life, has been a longstanding problem in the United States. As a group, college students are particularly vulnerable to food insecurity. In 2019, the Hope Foundation study of 167,000 college students from across the country found that 39% of them were food insecure in the prior 30 days. Moreover, 46% of students reported being housing insecure, and 17% were homeless during the previous year. Though these numbers are shocking, they are likely to worsen in the coming weeks and months, due to the economic turmoil caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Considering that the University of South Florida (USF) is a major metropolitan university with a large number of students from low and middle-income households, it would not be surprising to find that many of them are food insecure. Why is this important?

Research shows that chronic food insecurity increases the risk of diet-related chronic diseases, including type-2 diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, and obesity. This is particularly true in countries like the U.S., where nutritionally adequate food is generally plentiful, but not accessible to everyone because of systemic economic inequities. Individuals that struggle economically often choose lower-cost foods that are less healthy, to manage other expenses such as housing, utilities, and medicine.

Students filling Feed-A-Bull food pantry

Feed-A-Bull Food Pantry


These competing priorities also impact the overall mental and emotional well-being of those affected by food insecurity. The old adage about eating like a poor college student is not only true, but may also be costly in terms of overall health and wellness.

While USF researchers have examined food insecurity, health, and wellness in Tampa Bay and elsewhere, there is a need to look within the university at the students, staff, and even faculty. With this in mind, additional research is necessary to assess the magnitude of the problem on campus to find solutions, especially given the current pandemic and its resulting economic downturn.

Without a system-wide evaluation, it is difficult to say precisely how many USF students may struggle with food security. In the 2019-2020 academic year, however, a group of graduate students from the College of Public Health at USF, Renee Wallace, Cody Brown, Nicole Wenstrom, and Mariam Badru, investigated college food insecurity for a class project. “We found that about 20% of students are food insecure, […] that statistic is probably lower than the real number,” said Brown.

In the time since COVID-19, USF's Centers for the Advancement of Food Security and Healthy Communities (CAFSHC) research team worry that this number has only increased further. As Brown explained, “When you think about students who might've relied on on-campus dining services to eat every day or other students who may have lost jobs because of the pandemic and are now struggling to come up with money for food, it really is a scary thought and I'm sure the number of food insecure students has increased a great deal in the last month or so.”

While USF does have the Feed-A-Bull Pantry for students who need food, more initiatives are needed.

"The pantry succeeds in meeting the needs of the students who utilize its services, but there are many students whose needs are going unmet. With rising costs of living and tuition, students are often forced to make the choice between paying for their rent or purchasing groceries. Students need to be connected to more resources, not only within the USF community, but also within the wider Tampa Bay community. Only then will we be able to start addressing how food insecurity impacts our students," said David Himmelgreen, Director of CAFSHC and Professor of Anthropology at USF.

Moving forward, CAFSHC is determined to work with USF to assess the threat that food and housing insecurity poses to the USF student body. Originally, CAFSHC had plans to distribute a campus-wide survey to all students in the spring semester. However, due to COVID-19, current plans for a food and housing insecurity survey have been postponed until Fall 2020. It is hoped that the results from the proposed survey will not only help to inform USF about the current challenges that USF students face, but will also help to shape new programs and policies to address the needs of students.

Support CAFHSC

The research conducted in the CAFSHC by students and faculty will have life-changing impacts on policies, procedures and worldwide education and awareness programs to ensure a future where everyone has equal access to safe, healthy foods. To make a gift to support this research (fund # 420192, CAFSHC Operating Fund), please visit https://giving.usf.edu/how/herdfunder/food-insecurity-research-hub, or contact Sharon Hamisak, Director of Development at shamisak@usf.edu or 813.974.4072.

Published on: 6/19/2020