Food insecurity hits college students, too

Some students, for no fault of their intellectual ability or skill, have to leave college because they’re not able to meet their basic needs. That’s not fair.
— Phil Morin, Hunger Free Vermont

MIDDLEBURY — Hunger often conjures images of a family huddled together over bowls of meager soup, while cobwebs grow over an empty larder.
But hunger has many faces — including those of college students, some of whom aren’t able to consume enough food as they pore over course material.
That phenomenon — food insecurity among college students — was the subject of a recent gathering of the Hunger Council of Addison County. The spirited discussion included state and national statistics about students who are struggling to get enough nourishment, as well as the results of a Middlebury College survey into hunger issues on that campus, perceived by many to be a bastion of plenty.
Among those speaking at the Dec. 3 meeting at Middlebury College’s Axinn Center was Phil Morin, a food security specialist with Hunger Free Vermont. He focuses on 3SquaresVt — formerly known as the “Food Stamps” program — and working with service providers to make sure people throughout the state can access those offerings.
“One of the things that brought me to Hunger Free Vermont was the opportunity to focus on this population of college students and try to figure out how we can help them step over those barriers to access a program that can really help them be successful with their studies,” Morin said.
He lamented the many popular misconceptions about student priorities, such as “college students are prioritizing beer over food, or that it’s a rite of passage to exist off of Ramen noodles for years on end, or that colleges are not settings where food insecurity takes place.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, one in 10 Vermont household identifies as being “food-insecure,” meaning they don’t have consistent and reliable access to healthy, nutritious food that they would choose to eat.
Unfortunately, there is no federal measure of food insecurity among college students, Morin noted. It’s not a population that’s called during the census.
But there are many cases of students having to choose between nutritious food and being able to make tuition, and room and board payments, according to Hunger Free Vermont officials. Morin cited several reasons for the students’ food insecurity, including rising tuition costs, the fact that federal student aid doesn’t take into account the recipient’s debt, and that financial aid often isn’t enough to cover a student’s tuition, room and board.
Morin pointed to national statistics showing the percentage of low-income students expected to attend college in the fall following their high school graduation increased from 31.2 percent in 1975, to 69.2 percent in 2015. The percentage of high-income students expected to attend college also jumped during that period, from 64.5 percent to 82.2 percent.
“It’s good we’re getting students to school and colleges, but we’re failing them in not being able to make them more successful,” he said. “They, for no fault of their intellectual ability or skill, have to leave college because they’re not able to meet their basic needs. That’s not fair.”
Morin noted a study released last spring by the Wisconsin-based Hope Center. That study — called “College and University Basic Needs Insecurity: A National #RealCollege Survey Report” — involved 86,000 students at 123 institutions across the country. The study found that:
• 41 percent of university students were food insecure in the 30 days preceding the survey.
• 48 percent of community college students were food insecure in the 30 days preceding the survey.
• Food insecurity disproportionately affected students of color, lower-income students, first-generation students, and those who identified as LGBTQ.
“We finally do have some numbers that talk about this issue on a larger scale than just anecdotal stories we’ve been seeing in the paper,” Morin said.

The University of Vermont conducted two food insecurity surveys in 2017. They consisted of a random sample of UVM students, faculty and staff, each garnering a sample size of around 25 percent. Results indicated 19.6 percent of respondents reported being food-insecure during the fall of 2017. By comparison, the national rate in 2016 was 12.3 percent, and 10.1 percent in Vermont.
“There has been more attention paid to that population, and with that, there’s been a lot of folks asking ‘Why is this happening at our institutions of higher education?’” Morin said.
Help is available, but many college students don’t realize they might be eligible for 3SquaresVT benefits, Morin said. They can qualify if they are attending an institution of higher learning at least half-time, if they are earning below the income limits prescribed by the program, and if they can meet one of nine additional criteria — including if they are participating in a federally funded work study, are employed an average of 20 hours per week, or are caring for a dependent household member.
Molly D. Anderson is a professor of Food Studies at Middlebury College and academic director of the institution’s Food Studies Program. She teaches a class called “Hunger, Food Security and Food Sovereignty.” Around two-thirds of the class deals with international issues of food insecurity; the other third explores domestic food issues.
This year’s class decided to find out the extent to which Middlebury-area college students were experiencing hunger. The class includes Katie Beadle, Olivia Bravo, Jennifer Crandall, Catie Golini, Madeleine Leidt, Vivian Merrill, Asra Muhammedi, Charlie Rouhandeh, Rachel Veneziano-Solle, Lucy Weiss and Grace Weissman.
“Many people fail to realize what an issue it is in our own country, and it’s a scandalous issue — to have the levels of food insecurity that we do, given the wealth that our country has,” Anderson said. “We wanted to do something that might make a difference in our own community, so we decided to look at food insecurity among college students.”
Anderson explained the class had wanted to include both Middlebury and Community College of Vermont students in their study, but CCV officials declined, pointing to its small number (300) of Middlebury-based students, and expressing a desire to do a study of their own.
“Our initial hypothesis was we would find food insecurity much higher among the CCV students, partly because they’re older and many are working while they’re trying to go to school. They have children. And Middlebury College students, by and large, are on a meal plan.”
Middlebury College has a relatively new accounting system for its food service. It used to be that students were left unchecked to get meals at the institution’s dining halls. Now diners are issued a card they must swipe to gain access to dining services.
Anderson and her students explained more than 90 percent of the current student body were enrolled in a full meal plan, a cost that is factored into the college’s comprehensive fee. Only 100 students were either enrolled in a partial meal plan, or dine off-campus.
“We had initially expected to find very little food insecurity among Middlebury students, but we wanted to go ahead and find out what we could,” Anderson said. “And we actually found out some interesting things.”

The students conducted a series of interviews with college staff that are responsible for helping students who might be food insecure. The class also reviewed data from the “swipe cards” to get a handle on how many meals were served at the college’s dining halls in the 2018-2019 academic year.
The “swipe” study found, among other things, that:
• Around 450 meals per student that students need to account for that were off the meal plan. Not to say these students are food insecure, but researchers just don’t know how, when or if those are being eaten at all.
• Around 28,000 more meals were being eaten than the number of students on the meal plan. Possible sources for extra swipes were faculty/staff swipes, lunchtime cutoff, sneaking in, and days when the swipe machines aren’t staffed.
The students developed a survey that was completed by 330 of the college’s 2,500 students. Almost 8 percent of those who responded said they “sometimes” didn’t have enough food to eat, while 1.8 percent said they “often” didn’t have enough to eat. A little more than 67 percent said they had enough food, but not always the kinds of food they like to eat.
A few students reported buying their own food and being worried that food would run out before they had more funds, according to the survey.
The survey results led its creators to suggest some of the following remedies to school administration: Longer dining hall hours, more options (like food stipends) for students who must stay on campus during holiday breaks, and making more information available to students about food programs for the hungry.
“We uncovered as many questions as answers, I have to say,” Anderson said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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