While eating cup of noodles for 3 weeks straight feels like a rite of passage in college, a lot of students struggle with food insecurity and don’t even know it.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food insecurity as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life.” It can look different from person to person, making it harder to self-identify. It could be only being able to afford cheap and unhealthy food, wondering where your next meal is coming from, or having to make supplies last.

In their study the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that “the longer a student had been in college, the more likely they were to report housing and food insecurity”, meaning this is more likely to affect 3rd and 4th years than younger students.

This could be adding to the emotional stigma around the problem. Being older students, they might feel that they need to figure this problem out on their own.

The AACU also found that students who had jobs were more likely to face insecurities. Finding that:

“The majority of students who experience food insecurity 68 [percent], housing insecurity 69 [percent], and homelessness 67 [percent] are employed. . . . [and] those who experience basic needs insecurity work more hours than other students.”

Charlotte West in her article on this issue says “’It shouldn’t be a reality that some of the brightest minds, those that might come up with a cure for cancer, currently have to live on ramen. They might not be able to articulate that idea because of [their diet].””

It’s a pretty pervasive issue. One study says that up to 59% of students have dealt with food insecurity while in school. Other studies show it affects academic performance, making these students more likely to earn B’s, C’s, and below, slowing down graduation rates or landing them on academic probation.

What complicates this issue is the cultural myth that food insecurity is a part of the college experience. This stops students from speaking up because they perceive it as normal or an expected challenge. Being able to make it through finals on only coffee and a box of mac and cheese is seen as a badge of honor, often connected to hustle culture. There this is an ongoing joke perpetuated by media about living off cup of noodles or fast food, to the point of becoming sort of glorified. This silences low-income students as it assumes that there is no real danger to their situation. It also blocks students at more elite colleges from speaking up because people think that that sort of thing doesn’t happen there. But the truth is, man cannot live on ramen alone. This expectation of poor eating creates a code of silence for students that are struggling. They may see getting help as something shameful because of the assumption that everyone else has made this work.

So how can a college campus combat this issue?

Highlight Resources

Whether it’s a new program or one that has been in place for a while, spotlighting the resources that help with this issue is an essential step. Having them front and center helps to alleviate the stigma around getting help and grabs the attention of students that don’t yet know that they need it.

This could be more posters around campus, an easy to access page on the website devoted to the topic, or a highlighting it during orientation so students know of resources early on.

Having posters up to advertise meal vouchers and having them in multiple locations would make them more accessible and less stressful to ask for. Or work with nonprofits like Swipe Out Hunger who collect donated meal passes and points and make them available for students to request online.

Easy Access

The more hidden a resource is, the less likely students are to seek it out. The more steps involved, the more they might think that this is for someone else. If signing up or walking into the campus food pantry seems like a big deal, they may avoid it.

UCSC is addressing this issue by having multiple food pantries across campus, some in more familiar spaces like the Cantu Queer Center or the student-run Cowell Coffee Shop that provides free food and community events like open-mics.

The University of New Mexico works with a local food bank to have a monthly drop off on campus.

Pool Resources

Get in touch with local food banks and charities or see if local shops would be willing to offer a student discount. Collect community resources and let students know about them. For example UCLA’s Café 580 and Cal Poly’s Front Porch are both faith-based charities that provide free food, coffee, kitchen, and study space to students.

Some places also have a text alert students can sign up for to be notified of free food on campus.

There are also online resources that a school has that might help a student navigate a tight food budget such as webinars on finance, guides to budgeting, or school workshops on nutrition.

Websites like Jack Monroe’s Cooking on a Bootstrap, or Youtube series like Tastemade’s Struggle Meals and the Financial Diet’s The College Student’s Guide to Money could also help with a sense of direction and financial literacy.


Change the Messaging

The program CalFresh does a great job of this. Their flyers emphasize that most students qualify, that it’s easy to sign up, and that there are staff available to help with the sign up process.

Their message gives the impression of an upgrade, which side steps feelings of shame about needing help. While this is a serious issue, if the messaging around a resource feels dire then students might think that it is for someone in a worse situation and not for them.

Positive messages of support or of giving a boost to a tight budget feel much more welcoming.

There is also a theme of creating a more coffee-shop feel, inviting students to study and connect in spaces that are providing free food, weekly meals, or an accessible kitchen. The community around these spaces combats the stigma while providing a reliable resource.

Raise Awareness

A big barrier to students getting help is the idea that eating poorly in college is a part of the challenge, making getting help sometimes feel like failure. This can be amplified by a scholarship or job; there is this feeling of almost making it work, of stretching to make that last piece fall into place.

By raising awareness of how different Food Insecurity can look, how common it is, and how it affects performance, we can shift the narrative around this topic and make students feel more comfortable getting help.