Our hungry, homeless students



Earlier this year I posted an item to this blog about “Hunger on Campus,” which began: “Even as gourmet and gluten-free choices expand at some elite college eateries, Sara Goldrick-Rab and Katharine Broton have published an excellent, if deeply disturbing, article on “The Hidden Hunger Problem on Campus.”  For many it may be hard to believe, but the evidence is clear that a significant portion of the student body at both 2-year and 4-year institutions are facing serious problems simply getting enough to eat.”

Now two California studies reinforce the growing pervasiveness of this disturbing phenomenon.  First, a study conducted by the California State University system revealed that about one in ten of the CSU’s 460,000 students is homeless, and at least one in five doesn’t have steady access to enough food.  Employing surveys, focus groups, and interviews, the study found that “staff, faculty, and administrator participants estimated that the student populations on their campuses experiencing homelessness and food insecurity to be 8.70% and 21% respectively. . . .  However, preliminary survey results of students suggested the population might be larger. A survey was distributed to a random sample of students of 4,945 CSU Long Beach students. There were 1,039 respondents (21%) and 12% of respondents indicated housing instability and/or food insecurity.”

Students with unstable housing conditions are not required to say so, and many are reluctant to seek help because of the shame associated with homelessness, said Rashida Crutchfield, an assistant professor in the School of Social Work at Cal State Long Beach, who led the first phase of  the study.  Many students and faculty members, she said, were unaware that the definition of homelessness extended beyond living on the street. Some students who couch surfed or lived in their cars, for example, did not consider themselves homeless.  Crutchfield estimates that from 8% to 12% of CSU students are homeless, and 21% to 24% are food insecure.

The situation may be as bad or worse in the more elite University of California (UC) system.  A new comprehensive survey released yesterday finds four in ten UC students do not have a consistent source of high-quality, nutritious food.  The survey of nearly 9,000 students, believed to be the nation’s largest look ever at campus food security, found that 19% of respondents went hungry at times.  An additional 23% were able to eat but lacked steady access to a good-quality, varied and nutritious diet.

The survey also showed that 57% of students across the ten-campus UC system experienced problems finding sufficient or healthful food for the first time in college.  Among other findings:

  • Nearly half of undergraduates reported food problems, compared with 25% for graduate students.
  • Nearly one-third of those in need said they had difficulty studying because of hunger and no money for food.
  • About one-fourth said they had to choose between paying for food or educational and housing expenses.
  • Students without consistent access to quality food reported lower GPAs, averaging 3.1 compared with 3.4 for students without such problems.

The UC study differentiated “food insecure” students from those experiencing occasional food problems.  According to the study, “Compared to food secure students, a significantly higher proportion of food insecure students, including those experiencing reduced quality, variety or desirability of diet, were 18 to 24 years old (82% vs. 71%), undergraduates (84% vs. 65%), in their second through fourth year of study, Hispanic (29% vs. 15%), and Non-Hispanic Black (3% vs. 2%). About 16% of food insecure students were graduate students.”

According to a report on the UC  study in the Los Angeles Times, “Dominick Suvonnasupa, a Thailand native and recent graduate of UC San Diego, said he budgeted just $650 a month for housing in a market that commands hundreds more. As a result, he ran short of money for food and cut back to two meals daily.”

UC Irvine student Chris Tafoya, the Times reported, “admits that he’s often hungry and doesn’t eat the nutritious foods he should. On his worst days, the 20-year-old Los Angeles native said he would simply go to sleep early to quiet the hunger pangs.  Other times, he would eat instant ramen for breakfast, lunch and dinner. No matter that each serving is packed with sodium and fat; at less than 50 cents each, it was affordable for Tafoya, who has balked at asking his low-income relatives for help. ‘Cup Noodles saved the day,’ Tafoya said.”

Both Suvonnasupa and Tafoya

spoke of the shame they felt and reluctance to seek help.  It wasn’t until Tafoya got a C in statistics – his first such grade in a college course – that he realized he needed to find help.

“I’m from a Latino household and if you’re a man, you handle your business and you don’t ask for handouts,” Tafoya said.  “But once it began to affect my grades, I thought. …‘I  won’t be a fool.’”

Tafoya visited the campus food pantry and was gratified to receive a bag stuffed with canned fruits and vegetables, muffin mix, fruit snacks and other goods. “It meant the world to me to know help is out there if you just put your pride aside,” he said.

Gabriel Brenner, a 21-year-old art major at UCLA has used his campus food bank as frequently as five days a week.  He said he wasn’t surprised that more than 40% of UC students have experienced food insecurity. About the same proportion of students across the system are low-income and the first in their families to attend college.

“It’s comforting to know that there’s other people who are going through the same things that I have to go through relatively frequently,” he said, “but [it’s] also disappointing because they shouldn’t have to do that, especially when they’re coming to a world-renowned school like UCLA.”

One UCLA senior studying English, who volunteers at the food bank, said as many as 15 students at a time have lined up for food. She, too, has picked up oatmeal, fruit and bread – sometimes canned chicken as well. “Without this resource, I would be struggling financially,” she said. “Also, my health wouldn’t be the same. I would be more stressed out about school.”

“Food pantries are emergency support, but they do not solve the problem of hunger and malnourishment among our students,” said Ruben Canedo, who serves on food security committees at Berkeley and systemwide.

Nationwide, 3 million college students lack steady access to nutritious food, according to a 2014 report by Feeding America, a national network of food banks. “The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that one out of every seven households in the United States is considered to be food insecure, meaning that lack of money or other resources limits their access to adequate food. As awareness about the prevalence of food insecure households has increased, anecdotal reports from colleges and universities throughout the country have raised concerns about food insecurity among students.,” the UC study notes.

The CSU study notes that “[w]hile 56,588 students nationally and about 10,000 students in California identified themselves as independent homeless youth on their Free Application for Federal Student Aid in 2013-2014 (U.S. Department of Education unpublished data), this is undoubtedly a low count. Many students are unaware of the status designation, are unwilling to designate themselves as homeless, or become homeless after the FAFSA is completed.”

The California studies confirm what previous investigations have also suggested.  These studies found that food insecurity among students ranged from between one-quarter to more than one-half of the students sampled.  Among 354 undergraduate and graduate students surveyed at a public university in Oregon, 59% reported food insecurity. Similarly, 39% of 1,086 students surveyed at community colleges and universities in the City of New York, and 27% of 410 students surveyed at a public university in Hawaii also reported food insecurity.

Both CSU and UC administrators promised action to address these problems.  “This is a gasp, when you think about it,” CSU Chancellor Timothy P. White said.  “We’re going to find solutions that we can take to scale,” he said. “Getting this right is something that we just simply have to do.”

UC President Janet Napolitano, in conjunction with the survey’s release, announced a $3.3-million effort to expand the fight against campus malnutrition. Each campus will receive $151,000, adding to the $75,000 each received last year to build what officials say will be the nation’s most comprehensive, systematic plan to tackle the problem.

But one must wonder if such efforts, necessary and admirable as they undoubtedly are, will be even close to adequate.  For if food insecurity is so widespread at such a relatively elite institution as the UC, with its still predominantly middle-class student body, how extensive must it be elsewhere, especially in the nation’s community colleges?  These studies therefore call for more than just local action.  They reveal in outrageous and stark focus the moral bankruptcy of our societal disinvestment in higher education and our callous disregard for the welfare of our country’s youth.  It is bad enough that far too many students must now face a future in which they must crawl out from beneath a mountain of debt that they accumulated merely to get a degree.  Must they also go hungry and even live on the streets to get there?  Really, enough is definitely enough!