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Are your Students Hungry? VHEC Explores Food Insecurity on Campus

April 10, 2017
Are your Students Hungry?  VHEC Explores Food Insecurity on Campus

Would it surprise you to learn that almost 50% of student participants in a national survey indicated that they had experienced food insecurity in the 30 days prior to taking that survey?  Would it further surprise you to learn that this issue is prevalent not only at community colleges, but also at traditional four-year colleges where students are decreasing their meal plan in order to cover other educational expenses?  In fact, among respondents to this survey from four-year colleges, 43% of those who were enrolled in a meal plan still faced food insecurity.

If these facts surprise you, you are not alone.  Many faculty members would not consider that a students’ poor performance in class or inability to complete required reading might stem from hunger; and student affairs professionals might logically assume that students who have meal plans would be all set when it comes to food access and nutrition.  Food insecurity – defined by Feeding America as a lack of access to adequate, nutritious food – is a barrier to college access and success that we don’t always examine, especially among students who have matriculated to college and manage to hide their hunger.

This issue, however, is gaining traction among higher education institutions, researchers, and the popular press.  A sample of those stories and studies include:

  • A 2011 study by Australian researchers called food insecurity “the skeleton in the university closet.”
  • Of the 4 million college students included in the Feeding America national Hunger Survey in 2014, 30% reported some level of food insecurity. 
  • A 2015 Op Ed in the New York Times profiled students who are hungry and homeless on campus. 
  • The survey referred to in the opening of this article was completed by the National Student Coalition against Hunger and Homelessness in 2016 and resulted in a report called "Hunger on Campus." 
  • Countless news stories have covered the opening of food shelves on college campuses (such as this article in Inside Higher Ed or this piece on National Public Radio). 
  • In fact, so many food shelves have opened that a national organization called the College and University Food Bank Alliance was formed to support existing and emerging college food banks.

Vermont is not sheltered from this challenge.  While we do not yet have a handle on the number of our students who might be facing food insecurity statistically speaking, we are getting a sense of the emerging issue through a variety of observations.  A panel at VHEC’s recent Food Insecurity Colleague Conversation helped to share some of what we are learning.  The University of Vermont, for example, is just completing a survey of its students; findings are illustrating that food insecurity is an issue among both on and off-campus students, with first-generation students facing the highest challenges.  Anecdotal evidence from Johnson State College’s TRIO program demonstrates that students are using, with frequency, an ad hoc food shelf created by staff who saw a need an acted upon it.  Likewise, The Vermont Foodbank is working with other Vermont State Colleges to raise awareness among students about how to apply for the 3SquaresVT supplemental nutrition assistance program. 

The active engagement of almost 30 participants from campuses and community organizations at our food insecurity dialogue confirmed that Vermont campuses are committed to exploring this issue.  Participants were inspired and challenged by our panel, a presentation by an Undergraduate researcher from the University of New Hampshire who conducted a food insecurity study and spurred the implementation of key strategies at that campus to fight hunger, and resource-sharing by Sodexo food services staff.  Throughout the day, a number of potential strategies for addressing hunger were shared and brainstormed, but in the end we also decided that we need more information on the prevalence of this issue in our state so that we can design the most effective interventions.

VHEC looks forward to continuing this conversation by creating a Food Insecurity Advisory Council, exploring the possibility of conducting a statewide survey, and identifying potential funding for statewide dialogue and implementation efforts.  We also look forward to communicating with other New England states where associations are having parallel conversations to see if a regional approach would be beneficial.

If you are interested in being involved in these conversations, please feel free to contact Carrie Williams Howe or Kim Coleman

Thank you to those who joined our colleague conversation, to Champlain College for hosting, and to our partners in the hunger and food insecurity realm who joined us for this important conversation.  The power of our collective commitment was evidenced in that room and continues to impress us.  We look forward to working with you.

VHEC Partners