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Applied Anthropology, Food Insecurity, and College Campuses

By Lisa Henry, Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of North Texas

“Food is the last priority. I’d rather sleep on a bed and have a roof over my head than eat.”

Although the notion of the hungry college student is not new, the issue is receiving increasing national attention at local, state, and national levels. Recent cross-sectional, multi-university studies report a range of 35-50%, with an average of 44% of students being food insecure while attending college. What is clear from these studies is that college students are disproportionally food insecure when compared to the national average of 11.8%.

College is increasingly more expensive than for previous generations. The student population is changing to include more students who are already considered vulnerable populations, such as older students, first-generation, low income, working, more diverse, and those with family obligations to balance. These students often do not have enough financial resources to cover the rising costs of education. Federal financial aid helps. Federal loans help. University scholarships and grants help. However, oftentimes, even with all of these financial resources combined, it is still not enough to cover the expenses.

In February 2017, I partnered with the University of North Texas Dean of Students to conduct a research project on student food insecurity. Our specific research goals were to investigate:

  1. the meaning of food insecurity as perceived by college students,

  2. the experience of food insecurity as college students and in childhood,

  3. the barriers to accessing food assistance programs (on campus and off campus),

  4. eating habits, nutrition, and coping strategies,

  5. the association of physical and mental health with food insecurity,

  6. academic sacrifices and motivations for staying in college,

  7. local solutions to food insecurity in addition to the food pantry, and

  8. to evaluate the UNT Food Pantry.

The research team, including graduate and undergraduate students, collected 92 interviews, which equaled over 100 hours of recorded interview time. This study captures the students’ voices, their perspectives, their experiences, the meanings they give to food insecurity, and their everyday practices of being food insecure and hungry while trying to finish their degrees.

Students are willing to sacrifice. With all of the struggles – hunger, poor nutrition, the lack of energy, difficulty concentrating, the stress, depression and anxiety, the juggling of work and class time - they are still motivated to stay in college. They acknowledged that staying in school despite food insecurity and other stressors takes priority over hunger and health. They are motivated by the knowledge that a college degree is a step toward financial security, something some students have never had.

Universities across the country are implementing programmatic solutions, many of which are guided by research and/or are being evaluated to measure their success. Colleges have students with diverse needs who will benefit from a variety of programs that are tailored to meet those needs. These programs should be partnered with local community solutions, in addition to state and national programs.

My book, Experiences of Hunger and Food Insecurity in College, will be out in January 2020.

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