It’s a popular stereotype among many college students: cheap living often includes subsisting on a diet exclusively of instant ramen noodles.
But Sarah Levine said this stereotype masks the real struggles some students have to feed themselves.
“That’s not to say everyone goes through it,” said Levine, a junior neuroscience major and Parliament’s junior class representative. “But there are things that people do go through that aren’t being acknowledged and the resources aren’t entirely there to help them because no one knows that [food insecurity] is an actual thing.”
Food insecurity, or the lack of access to affordable, nutritious food, is an increasingly recognized issue on college campuses. Last spring, four campus-based advocacy groups — the College and University Food Bank Alliance, the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness, the Student Government Resource Center and Student Public Interest Research Groups — conducted the broadest study to date on food insecurity among college students. The groups surveyed 3,765 students at eight community colleges and 26 four-year colleges.
In their subsequent report, “Hunger on Campus,” the researchers found 48 percent of surveyed students reported experiencing food insecurity.
Levine counts herself as one of them. When she came to Temple as a financially independent, first-generation college student, Levine said she never had a “safety net” to fall back on. When it came time for her to pay for expenses, she tried to minimize the cost of food by buying cheap food and forgoing snacks.
Temple does not currently operate a food pantry, or a place students could go to receive free non-perishable foods like bread, cereal or canned vegetables. Provost JoAnne Epps told The Temple News in a statement that a group of administrators has been meeting recently to explore potential ways of addressing food insecurity on Main Campus.
Levine said she and other food-insecure students often seek free food provided at events around Main Campus to supplement their own purchases.
Without a reliable supply of food, Levine said students can lose focus and suffer academically. Although some of her professors have been empathetic to her struggles, she said it can be difficult to know when — and how —to speak up. A common suggestion she hears is to take out additional loans, which isn’t an option for students like Levine, who lack a cosigner.
Levine said Sara Goldrick-Rab helped her to better understand her situation. Goldrick-Rab, a higher education professor, researches college affordability issues like food insecurity. She is currently developing the HOPE Center for College, Community and Justice, a research laboratory aimed at developing policy solutions for inequities in higher education. The Center will be housed in the College of Education and will open in September 2018.
Goldrick-Rab told Levine that food insecurity is a national problem among college students. Levine said she began to recognize her own struggles within a much larger context.
“It was finally like this ‘aha’ moment, like, ‘This isn’t right. This isn’t normal,’” Levine said.
The HOPE Center will also partner with the College and University Food Bank Alliance, an organization of nearly 500 campus-based food pantries.
On April 6, CUFBA’s co-founder Clare Cady moderated a panel about food insecurity in Walk Auditorium for Campus Sustainability Week. Representatives from food pantries at West Chester University, Rutgers University, Stockton University and Montclair State University spoke on the panel.
Tori Nuccio, the assistant director of financial aid at West Chester University and founder of the school’s resource pantry — which offers free non-perishable food, business attire, winter clothes, school supplies and toiletries to students — said food insecurity often stems from a sudden break in support programs between high school and college.
“Our students might have free or reduced lunch or food stamps that they could easily use in high school or in their home community that do not translate once you get to college,” Nuccio said.
Jonathan Latko, a marketing instructor and director of the Computer Recycling Center, is also working on relieving food insecurity. Every spring semester, Latko teaches Marketing for Sustainable Enterprises, a course about developing marketing strategies for sustainability issues. He chose food insecurity as this semester’s subject.
Following the food insecurity panel, his students presented their class projects to event attendees. While some of the projects focused on general food insecurity awareness, others outlined more specific marketing plans, like a proposal to advertise healthy and affordable food options from campus food trucks. Nuccio later said she is interested in compiling a similar list for the food trucks at West Chester University.
To make the greatest impact, Levine said Temple should educate students about food insecurity as early as freshman orientation. She said many students don’t immediately comprehend the realities of debt and high costs when they leave high school.
“College has been portrayed as this opportunity to find yourself, but there’s no bearings,” Levine said. “It’s kind of like, ‘Here’s a highway right on the edge of a cliff, there’s no speed limit and there’s a lot of sharp turns, so like, have fun.’”
Levine said it’s difficult for food-insecure students to ask for help. It’s crucial for professors, she said, to perceive the problems their students face and be as receptive as they can.
“Having that ability to offer them something, offer them emotional support in whatever way and acknowledging that they might be going through something, is a huge relief,” Levine said.
Ian Walker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ian_walker12.