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Intellect

When college students can't afford to eat: A Q&A with a BYU nutritional science professor about food insecurity

An estimated 40% of college students experience food insecurity

BYU professor Rickelle Richards sits at her desk in her office.
Rickelle Richards, BYU professor of nutrition, dietetics and food science.

NOTE: If you're a BYU student struggling with food insecurity, the Dean of Students Office has recently launched a website with resources to help: https://foodandhousinginsecurity.byu.edu

As the fall semester gets underway, too many U.S. college students will face bare kitchen cupboards and empty refrigerators. Food insecurity among this population is a quiet epidemic, one that BYU nutritional science professor Rickelle Richards — who experienced food insecurity herself as a college student — hopes to illuminate through her research.

For a recent study co-authored by BYU professor Nathan Stokes and other colleagues, Richards analyzed interviews with food-secure and food-insecure college students at BYU, Oregon State University and the University of Hawaii-Manoa. In this Q&A, Richards reflects on what she learned from the study, including her ideas for how students can help peers struggling with food insecurity.

Q: Many college students have financial constraints. What’s the difference between eating on a budget and experiencing food insecurity?

A: Being food insecure means that you lack access to the quantity, quality and/or variety of foods you need for a healthy lifestyle. The definition is based on the surveys that the U.S. Department of Agriculture administers to individuals nationally. Someone who is food insecure may budget for food but still not have enough money or other resources to maintain the food supply they need for a healthy diet. For college students in our study, this often manifested as relying on non-perishable foods like ramen noodles, rice and beans when funds were low or when their food supply varied throughout the month or from paycheck to paycheck.

Q: How widespread is food insecurity among college students?

A: There’s no question that food insecurity exists among college students, although it’s challenging to get an exact number because researchers have used different tools to measure it. A reasonable estimate is that 40% of college students are food insecure, compared to about 11% of the general population.

Q: What makes college students especially vulnerable to food insecurity?

A: College students may be more susceptible because of all the costs they are balancing between tuition, fees, books, housing and recently rising food prices. They may lack transportation to the most affordable places to buy food or the resources to prepare meals. And among college students, research has shown a higher risk of food insecurity among first-generation students, community college students, students who are working part-time and/or receive financial assistance, students with a low income, students with children, single parents, students of color and/or students who rent rather than live at home.

Additionally, college students often don’t qualify for benefits. Especially before COVID, getting Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits or food stamps was really, really challenging for students. It’s a little easier now, although it’s unclear whether the previous restrictions will return, and even with the changes during COVID, many international students were still not eligible for any assistance. When they do qualify for programs, students might be unaware of them, feel unable to navigate the complicated application process or feel embarrassment using them.

Q: Beyond hunger, how does food insecurity affect students’ lives?

A: We see a lot of concerning dietary changes in these students, like skipping meals, not getting enough fruits and vegetables, or disordered eating patterns that lead to obesity or weight loss. They may be more prone to depression and other kinds of psychological distress. We also see lower academic performance. That’s not shocking to me, because if you think about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, if your basic needs aren’t met, it’s hard to reach those higher levels of self-actualization. You can imagine that if you’re hungry and preoccupied with where your next meal is coming from, it can hinder the life you’re trying to lead in college.

Q: How can students be more sensitive to food insecurity in their roommates’ or classmates’ lives?

A: The social component of college life is important, and some of the students we heard from in our study said they were going out to eat with friends who maybe weren’t struggling financially and for whom it wasn’t a big deal. One way we can be more Christ-like is to be more observant of the needs of those around us. Of course, unless you’re very good friends with someone, you’re probably not going to ask them, “Hey, do you have enough money?” But maybe just acknowledge that within your friend group there may be someone struggling, and ask yourself, how can we still have a fun social life that allows everyone to join in without having to do expensive things?

Q: Are there any specific things students can do when they see someone in need?

A: If you have a car and know people who don’t, offer to give them a ride to the grocery store. In our study, transportation was one of the biggest challenges for food-insecure students — if you have to take a bus or walk to the store, you end up buying smaller packages of food, which may be more expensive, because that’s what you can carry.

I know this from my own experience being food insecure in college and not having access to a car. I’ll never forget one time when I lived in Minnesota and took the bus to the store in the winter. I wasn’t even thinking and got paper bags. When I got to the bus stop, there was snow on the ground, and I just had to hold all my groceries while I waited for the bus because I couldn’t put them down! When I eventually did get a car, I remember thinking, “I am going to look out for people who I know don’t have a car.” Because it’s hard to ask for a ride, you feel like a nuisance. It seems like a simple thing to offer a ride, but I can tell you, that’s huge: having access to a car, whether their own or through someone else, can help a student with food insecurity get food for cheaper prices.

Q: What are some ways universities can help?

A: In other studies we’ve done, we’ve seen many creative approaches to address food insecurity. Food pantries are probably the most common resource you see on college campuses. Some of the pantries glean from the college campus community itself — when there’s extra food on campus, it’s diverted to the food pantry. Another approach is to allow students on dining meal plans to donate extra funds they aren’t going to use to students who may need dining dollars. Some campuses have community gardens, where students can help garden and then take some produce home, or farmer’s markets where students can use SNAP benefits to get extra fruits and vegetables. Approaches vary widely because it depends on how the administration is structured and how their programs are funded, but some campuses have task forces or coordinators who help advertise resources and connect students with help. Whatever the approach is, I think it works best if it’s student driven.

Q: What resources would you suggest for BYU students currently struggling with food insecurity?

A: Given that BYU is sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I would encourage students who have concerns about getting enough food to eat to talk to their bishop, who can help connect them with resources. The Dean of Students Office is also ready to help and has a website with resources from BYU, the Church and the community. Great resources in the Provo community that provide food assistance include:

  • Community Action Services and Food Bank
  • The Food and Care Coalition
  • The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children
  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program through Department of Workforce Services
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