Fighting Food Insecurity: Student Athletes

  • September 15, 2021
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When most people picture a student struggling with food insecurity, the image of a student athlete is far from their minds. They might think of a first-year student fresh out of Orientation and still adjusting to campus life. “Student athlete” conjures up images of dedication, early morning drills, and ice baths, far from the expected picture. It’s not hard to glance over what is becoming a glaring issue – lots of student athletes don’t have reliable access to the food they need.

Food Insecurity on college campuses is a tricky issue. United Educators says that “Unlike K-12 schools, which track how many students qualify for food assistance, higher education institutions…must use available data, such as financial aid records.” This makes identifying at-risk students much harder, frequently relying on the students to identify themselves and be proactive in the process. Many think that struggling with food in college is normal so they are often reluctant to seek help.

A key step in addressing this issue is educating students on what food insecurity looks like. There needs to be time dedicated to breaking down the myths that surround this problem, such as having a video module that addresses it directly. An Online module during Orientation would ensure that first-year students are aware of this issue and the resources available to them, making them more comfortable with reaching out later. Older students are more likely to deal with food insecurity so a recurring required Online Training on nutrition and the aid available would encourage students to seek help before academic performance is affected. Custom Online Modules highlight how serious this issue is and make sure every student is educated on it, creating a sort of checkpoint.

The student athlete population would specifically benefit from this online training since they are a bit more at risk because of their unique position. In Georgetown University’s article, they say that while some of these students are able to get full-rides with generous meal plans, “40 percent of the nation’s 460,000 NCAA student-athletes receive no athletics scholarships at all, and most of the remainder receive only partial scholarships.” Many are coming up short when it comes to a sufficient food budget.

Sports Illustrated quoted Goldrick-Rab, saying “There’s a part of me that really thought, though, that athletes get so much extra attention that they really would be substantially less likely to deal with these problems, and I was really wrong,”.

 

The problem:

  1. Eligibility– Receiving help is complicated. Most athletes have a set of rules to follow in order to stay in a program. Georgetown University says that many students “must be careful not to accept money or help that could be construed as resulting from [their] status as an athlete” or they risk getting booted from their program – especially with higher level leagues like the NCAA.

Having to worry about compliance offices makes the task of getting help much more difficult. Accepting the wrong help could, and has, resulted in the loss of eligibility.

For example, “The Hope Center tells of former Baylor University running back Silas Nacita, who was homeless but lost his eligibility to play football for the college after accepting unapproved housing, and former UCLA linebacker Donnie Edwards, who ended up paying a penalty after accepting groceries during a period of food-insecurity.”

Online training would be helpful here. Giving students a module that breaks down compliance rules would translate the wordier language of the rulebook and help them navigate tricky situations instead of being blindsided. A module could be tailored to each sport and give them accurate information on what help they could use.

2. Time constraints– Practice and events take up a lot of time. Students often have to keep a certain GPA to participate and maintain a scholarship, meaning a good portion of their day needs to be dedicated to studying. This leaves a lot less time for students to be able to work part-time jobs and support themselves.

They also may have barely any time at home to prepare meals, meaning that they are stuck with the more expensive option of dining out or campus-food on an already limited budget.

 

3. Calories– Performance requires fuel and a lot of it.

These students often have a higher calorie requirement to keep up with training, meaning that they burn through their food budget or meal plan much faster. What might work for a normal student isn’t enough for a foot-ball player in the middle of their season who needs 5 or 6 meals a day.

Ways to Help:

The best way to address this is to have programs like food pantries, meal waivers, and meal-donations that work with eligibility requirements and then promote them within the athletic sphere – making sure that these students understand that these resources are open to them and that they won’t be faulted for using these programs.

Food scholarships are another way to prevent students from slipping through the cracks, keeping an eye on who is getting help with only tuition and not basic needs.

On a smaller level, United Educators recommends reaching out to local restaurants and grocery stores to secure deals or gift cards for students. Snack Pantries in locker rooms and training centers provide easy and low-stress access to food during a busy day on campus. And offering meal waivers in multiple locations, like near training or study areas, gives time-stressed students more of a chance to grab them.

Adapting to the pandemic, Mississippi athletic director Keith Carter came up with a pre-loaded gift card program for his school, saying “Any athlete who asks can now receive a weekly meal card valued at $105—an amount that had to be approved by the compliance office—that can be used at “fast-casual” restaurants, like Subway. A grocery store option could be added in the future.”

 

Conclusion: 

Ultimately, these students need the support of their institutions to tackle this problem. They need help navigating the red tape surrounding this issue and programs that work with compliance rules. Students also need to know that these situations should not be accepted as normal which is why education on this issue is so important.

Getting information to students early on, such as during Orientation or at the start of training, is crucial. Video Modules on nutrition, financial literacy, and the programs in place can give these students a big boost in tackling this issue. Having this knowledge and support from staff will give student athletes a leg up, giving them the tools to navigate getting the help they need.