College Student Hunger Research

Food insecurity has the potential to harm college students’ ability to achieve their educational and professional goals.

The demographic makeup of the college student population has changed in recent decades. According to a 2018 Government Accountability Office report, less than one-third are “traditional” students, whose characteristics include being enrolled full-time in college directly after high school while remaining financially dependent on their parents. Instead, most college students (71%) are “nontraditional,” meaning they may possess the following characteristics: experience financial independence, are enrolled part-time, work full-time while in school, are caretakers for dependents, and/or did not receive a traditional high school diploma. Additionally, college students are entering school later than students in the past: the average age at first enrollment is 21, and the overall average age of students is 26. As such, many college students are balancing schoolwork with parenting, with 22% of students caring for child dependents and 14% doing so as single parents. Overall, the share of college students with low household incomes has increased, and when these factors are combined with the rising cost of education, many adult students are struggling to make ends meet.

Food banks have responded to need on college campuses with brick-and-mortar food pantries on college campuses, mobile pantries that distribute on or near campuses, SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) application assistance, and more. While awareness of the existence of such approaches is growing, there has been a lack of knowledge and evidence about the role of the charitable food sector in serving college students, which constrains opportunities for strategic coordination.

Supported by The Kresge Foundation, Feeding America partnered with Claremont Graduate University to better understand how network food banks are addressing college food insecurity in their communities. The evaluation team leveraged interviews with select food banks and a survey, open to the entire Feeding America Network (200 food banks), to explore the landscape of charitable services to address college hunger.

Key Findings from the study include:

  • Of the 150 food banks that responded to the survey, 129 food banks in the Feeding America network are working to address hunger among college students.

  • 110 food banks distribute food directly to college students, which is the most common approach to addressing college hunger, followed by assisting students with completing the SNAP application (39 food banks), and policy and advocacy efforts (33 food banks).

  • Feeding America food banks operate 316 pantries and 124 mobile pantry distributions on college campuses.

  • Food banks encounter facilitators and barriers to successful college hunger activities that fall into one of four categories: 1) Relationships/partnerships, 2) Awareness, 3) Access, and 4) Operations

Related Materials – 2019 Release