Food Insecurity on College Campuses

As we put a wrap on July, we realize summer will be coming to its inevitable end.  Not just because it’s hot here in Northern NJ, it’s more because Back to School sales are popping up everywhere!  Now is the time that we see the outdoor furniture section become entirely converted to a large display of notebooks, pens, backpacks and folders.  And then we realize there is a new crop of freshman getting ready to head off to college.   A new world awaits them – new ways of learning, new social interactions and, potentially, food insecurity.

The rate of food insecure students is currently growing among college campuses.  The classic cliché of surviving on ramen noodles (referenced in nearly every piece of research for this piece) is a reality for 22% of college students who have spent a portion of their past 30 days hungry.

32% percent of those students impacted said the issue affected them academically in the following ways:

  • Lack of focus, concentration, energy
  • Emotional distress
  • Academic struggles
    • Missed classes
    • Lower test scores
    • Poor grades
    • Dropped out

The fact is, the demographic of college students has changed; many are working, they are older, (the average age is 24 at Bergen Community College), some are retraining and some are struggling, post-recession middle-class parents.  “Folks are overtaxing themselves to be able to come to college.  Part of it is just the burden of the college education and the cost of living is a lot,” said Kerri Willson, who runs the Rutgers Student Food Pantry. “And then I also think what we have in our mind as the stereotypical image of who a college student is, is not a reality anymore.”  College tuitions have risen, yet financial aid has not matched the pace.  Students are not eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits unless they work at least 20 hours per week or participate in a work-study program.

Through some recent studies*, six New Jersey colleges and universities have responded with on campus food pantries and 398+ nationally have opened to date. Montclair State University, Rutgers University, Bergen Community College, Rowan University, Stockton State University, and Caldwell University all have food assistance programs.  Stockton State has a food voucher program; all programs are set up to be discreet recognizing that shame and stigma keep many from asking for help. The College of New Jersey is also exploring ways to aid food insecure students and staff (often eligible and welcome at campus pantries).  Many food insecure students also face housing insecurity, so some of the pantries include personal care items, coats, and clothing as well.   On a single day in December, 33 students visited the food pantry at Montclair State, taking bread, cereal, milk, spaghetti, canned vegetables, and personal items like shampoo and soap.

Along with opening food pantries, campus food recovery programs can aid students by collecting some of the estimated 169,000 pounds of food wasted annually.  While still not a priority focus of these programs, Table to Table has made inroads, working with the Food Recovery Network and The Campus Kitchen at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City to not only provide fresh, nutritious meals to the community, but also to the campus. Food rescue remains the clearest, most cost-effective approach to helping resolve food insecurity and food waste.

*October 2016 by Wisconsin HOPE Lab

Image:  Fatima deCarvalho (left) and Sonja Tilman help run Montclair State’s food pantry. Photo by CNN Money.


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