There Isn’t One Way to Address College Hunger; There Are a Million

by Amanda S. Hege, MPH, RD, LD former Director of Community Outreach, University of Kentucky

While advising the Campus Kitchen at the University of Kentucky, a student-led organization that recovers and repurposes food to serve healthy meals, I realized that many students were volunteering in order to get a free meal. Hearing from these students began my journey to gain a deeper understanding of how limited food and housing access for college and university students impacts student success. I heard countless anecdotal stories from other faculty, staff, and offices across campus that shared they were “feeding students from their desk drawers.”

All too often, college hunger is viewed as a right-of-passage, but recent research shows that students who experience food insecurity are more likely to leave college without a degree.

The initial response at UK was for the Campus Kitchen to start serving free meals focused on students and a group of students launched a food pantry in the basement of a classroom building. Both programs were student-led, and neither were well-utilized. We knew that the current resources to address financial and food insecurity were not enough.

As a firm believer that the best way to accomplish anything is through fostering relationships, we launched a coalition of about 15-members who represented students, administrators, faculty, staff, dining services, and offices across campus (such as the counseling center, health services, diversity office, and the LGBTQ* resource center). Our team conducted a two-phase research study that collected surveys and convened focus groups in order to define the prevalence and determine effective solutions.

We found that nearly half of all enrolled students experienced food insecurity and 9% experienced housing insecurity in the past year.[1] These numbers are slightly higher than the national average likely due to the high rates of poverty across Kentucky. To share what we learned, we published a Basic Needs Report that offers a five-year plan to fully address students’ needs.

Upon completion of our study and report, we were surprised to actually learn that the numbers didn’t matter. Whether food insecurity impacts 1% or 90% of the student body, the prevalence is too high. And, upon further research, we realized that this problem is real among all institutions of higher education in the United States and it disproportionately impacts underrepresented minority students.

College is a place where students should be able to focus on learning. We know that higher levels of education can break the cycle of poverty. The uniqueness of hunger on college campuses (compared to hunger in the community) is that it is defined by a period of time.

Students will graduate, and if our college and universities are doing what they are designed to do, these students will obtain a job, earn a living wage, and break-out of poverty. But if students are burdened with hundreds-of-thousands-of-dollars of debt to afford food and housing, this dream can be unreachable.

So, the question that needs to be addressed is – what is the accurate definition of student success?

In order to move the needle towards students having a meaningful educational experience and obtaining a degree, we need to figure out ways to implement sustainable solutions to food and financial insecurity. Recent approaches at the University of Kentucky bring together multiple offices and departments across campus to offer a collaborative and coordinated effort, such as:

  • Basic Needs Coordinator position and website – provide adequate staffing and services in a centralized location; examples include case-management, assist and promote student completion of the FAFSA, on- and off-campus high paying employment, and managing a need-based Student Success Fund to help students overcome financial barriers
  • Free Meal Swipes – In partnership with Universities Fighting World Hunger, the Student Government Association, and UK Dining, students were able to provide free meal swipes. During the initial launch, the program provided 15,500 meal swipes to 513 students. A student shared that the “meal swipes helped me complete my degree.”
  • ONE Community Café – In partnership with UK Dining and Aramark, ONE provides UK students balanced, nutritious meals for just $1 per meal and $2 for another to-go meal. Students shared that they “get more sleep and pay more attention in class because I’m not hungry.”
  • Farm-to-Fork – One solution is to distribute hot, quality meals prepared with local ingredients. During the first 22 weeks, they served more than 2,500 meals to 970 students and ‘connects the dots’ between sustainable food production, health and social justice to foster community food security. Learn more here. Students share that “The meals made me feel like the campus community was inclusive of students like me.”

My journey to understanding and solving college hunger continues. The key to success is collaboration on all levels. So, start the discussion or continue the momentum to bring meaningful action. What do you think are effective methods to ensure all students have access to healthy food and a safe place to sleep at night?

I imagine there is more than one successful approach. So, whether you are a student or administrator at a university, food banker, or community member, do your part in cultivating hunger-free campus communities. After all, we are all in this together.

Amanda was the first Director of Community Outreach at the University of Kentucky where she launched initiatives at the intersection of food security, nutrition, and agriculture. She currently lives in western North Carolina and works at local, state, and federal levels to address hunger through various organizations including the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics foundation, Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest NC, and Appalachian State University.

[1] Hege, A. Stephenson, T., Pennell, M., Revlett, B.*, VanMeter, C.*, Stahl, D.*, Oo, K.*, Bressler, J.*, Crosby, C.* (2020). College Food Insecurity: Implications on Student Success and Applications for Future Practice. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice. IISSN: 1949-6591 (print)/1949-6605 (online)