How Food Insecurity Starves Student Success

Nearly one in four college students worry about where they will find their next meal. For some, this constant struggle undermines physical and mental health (along with academic success) in notable ways.

Illustration of an empty pantry Illustration of an empty pantry

Photo by Maranie Staab.

The loss of one grant during her junior year sent Abby Raines, a senior policy studies and political science major at Syracuse University, into food insecurity, living on 79-cent bread and groceries her roommate’s parents gave her. But it took her two years to arrive at that place. She began her college career in a sea of 15,000 other SU undergraduate students, relying on the stability of a dining plan and financial grants as an independent student via FASA, a status that means she is solely responsible for funding her higher education and increases the possibility of securing additional financial aid. During her freshman and sophomore year, she found her dream major, joined Greek life, and worked on-campus as a tutor, class facilitator, and teaching assistant. But her junior year, she moved off campus, lost her financial grant, and had to fend for herself on all fronts. “At that point, you make practical decisions about what you’re going to eat, but you don’t know what you’re going to do,” she says, adding she immediately began looking for a job. “It’s really embarrassing to have to be in that situation. So you just don’t talk about it, and you don’t go out, and so you can’t find resources.”

Raines came to SU from Liberty, Kentucky, where the median household income is $25,605 with a 24.9% poverty rate. She grew up food insecure, but thanks to two years of meal plans, she escaped that worry. “My family’s not necessarily food insecure now but like elementary, middle, high school, yeah absolutely,” she says. “So I should’ve been more prepared for it, but I wasn’t. I was living in the idyllic bubble, and it put me on my ass.”

Illustration of a student with a rain cloud over their head

A National Crisis

Just like college students across the country, Raines navigates all of the same college-student struggles: exams, lack of sleep, stress, never ending papers to write. But Raines also faces the additional challenge many of her peers navigate, one that arrives three times a day: Where will the next meal come from? Estimates of the number of students who struggle with food insecurity — a lack of consistent access to food — vary from study to study. A 2018 study by the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that food insecurity impacts nearly a quarter of college students across the country. However, a 2017 study by the University of Iowa found that about half of two- and four-year college students qualify as food insecure, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines as the lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life. The studies indicated that marginalized students and former foster care students suffered more from food insecurity than other students. And while universities provide millions of dollars in financial aid to students each year, this assistance often fails to factor in off-campus housing, food, clothing, and other basic human necessities. “Over the past three decades, the price of college attendance has risen while financial aid has not been able to keep up, and real family incomes have stagnated,” says Dr. Katharine Broton, an assistant professor at the University of Iowa’s College of Education and a basic-needs insecurity researcher. “Hunger and food insecurity does not have a single look or face. Most students who are basic-needs insecure work and receive financial aid, but they still report problems making ends meet.”

Raines has taken 18 credits every semester and currently works at SU Literacy Corps, as a personal tutor, a teaching assistant, and is involved in SU College Democrats. “If I had a different outlook or different upbringing, I don’t think I would’ve made it. It was very sink or swim,” she says. Juggling those responsibilities and academic demands requires students to make stress-inducing decisions. “They’re food insecure because they’re working less, they’re paying for tuition and books and subway fare,” says Nicholas Freudenberg, Ph.D., a public health professor at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Public Health & Health Policy (CUNY-SPH). “And that means that they have to choose between having dinner and staying in school. And that just seems like a really cruel choice.”

“Hunger and food insecurity does not have a single look or face. Most students who are basic-needs insecure work and receive financial aid, but they still report problems making ends meet.”

Those financial pressures coupled with food insecurity create additional mental-health issues. “A lot of people are suffering negative health outcomes because of food insecurity and especially these negative mental-health outcomes,” says Craig Gundersen, Ph.D., a food insecurity professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign,“It’s really a crisis in our country.” Mental illnesses, such as depression, can be both a cause and a consequence of food insecurity, according to a 2019 College SNAP and Food Insecurity study by the American Journal of Public Health. Students experiencing food insecurity were more likely to self-report their health as “fair or poor,” according to a ScienceDirect study. One study identified three common contributors to the mental-health challenges faced by food insecure students: constant uncertainty of how they will get their next meal, shame from the stigma of food insecurity, and an indicator of other disparities the student may be facing related to food insecurity. “Individual-level food insecurity is associated with poorer mental-health outcomes across all global regions, independent of socioeconomic factors,” the study reports.

Illustration of a bowl of soup that says 'next meal'

Physical, Emotional, and Academic Tolls

There’s also the actual malnutrition associated with food insecurity that plays a supporting role to the stress and mental-health challenges. Among children, researchers have found that food insecurity leads to behavioral and academic problems in school. “The stories we hear from both faculty and students are both very poignant but also very immediate,” Freudenberg says. “People fall asleep in class because they haven’t had anything to eat for 12 or 24 hours. Or they get headaches all the time, or they can’t afford to get to class.” Food insecurity takes an emotional toll too. “In terms of food insecurity, just being food insecure leads to depression and leads to a lot more stress and a lot of other issues,” says Gundersen. Anger. Frustration. Regret. Sadness. Stress. While it may be simple to assume that a lack of food can lead to feeling malnourished and “hangry,” it’s these other emotional and psychological factors that can undermine a student’s mental health. “It’s not only terrifying, and you’re not only pissed and hungry all the time, it’s just constant stress. Constant stress,” Raines says.

Those physical and emotional challenges undermine academic success. One study compared students of all different food-security levels and GPAs and concluded that “being food insecure is associated with a 22% lower likelihood of having a 3.6-4.0 GPA than a 2.0-2.49 GPA.” Even Raines admits that sometimes, school takes the beating. “If you have a 15-page paper due, and you haven’t eaten in two days, there’s a little bit more to it than figuring out how to do your paper.” Another study examined the same factors, finding that poorer mental health was associated with a low GPA, and food insecurity accounted for 73% of the total effect. In other words, food insecurity plays a key role in mental-health issues, which, in turn, leads to a lower GPA. Freudenberg adds from his own research, “What we’re finding is that students who are food insecure are more likely to have lower GPAs, to drop out, and to fail out than students who are food secure.”

Illustration of an alarm clock

Student-centric solutions

To address this growing problem, college campuses across the country have begun implementing programs. In fact, 686 colleges across the country offer food pantries on campus, according to data from the College and University Food Bank Alliance.“The concerning thing about food insecurity is that it’s often just the most visible sign,” says Shannon Lee, a poverty and education writer for Affordable Colleges Online, who points out that visits to a food pantry, for example, can suggest the existence of other challenges. “A lot of the time, what people might not see is that these students are dealing with so much more. They might be living in their car or on a friend’s couch, you just don’t know.“

Some solutions come from the students themselves. As a student at New York University, Jon Chin struggled with poverty and food insecurity. For Chin, food often sat at the bottom of his to-do list, and the lack of routine sustenance undermined his mental health. “Specifically after graduation, after my undergrad, it was really isolating and really depressing,” he says. “I couldn’t go out to eat with friends, and I couldn’t invite friends over for dinner.” To address those issues for others, he created the Share Meals program, which allows college students to share their meal cards and plans. At Bellarmine University in Kentucky, senior sociology major Becca Broada began the Knights Pantry, a free food pantry for students. Earlier this year, a group of students at Cornell University created Anabel’s Grocery. The student-run grocery store provides fresh, healthy, and affordable food for all students at Cornell University. And students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison also created a food pantry for students, and students continue to run it.

University administrators also have sought out creative solutions to address the issue. For example, when SUNY-Cobleskill administrators decided to tackle food insecurity, they found their students were more likely to walk to an off-campus food pantry – there are three within walking distance of campus – than an on-campus one, according to Irving. This wouldn’t surprise Chin, who created his meals program with the goal of avoiding highlighting the food-insecurity aspect of the initiative because of the stigma attached to that label. “I think one of the biggest pitfalls of putting the label on any initiatives that universities do, is that they actually continue to stigmatize and isolate students who are food insecure,” he says.

To avoid that, members of the food insecurity task force at SUNY-Cobleskill decided against using their funding for an on-campus food pantry; instead, they implemented an emergency hot meal program. This program allows students to fill out an online form detailing their situation, and within 24 hours, that student will have three days’ worth of hot meals on their student card. “Nine times out of 10, we’re going to give them the meals and then figure it out afterwards,” says Mary Irving, a chairman of the task force. “In return, the students have to have a follow-up conversation with one of us, because we figured that if there’s a problem with food, then there’s a problem with other things.”

“I think one of the biggest pitfalls of putting the label on any initiatives that universities do, is that they actually continue to stigmatize and isolate students who are food insecure.”

The university also created free cooking classes for students, who can come in and learn to cook recipes with items found in their food pantry. When Irving thinks of what she has taught her class, a recipe immediately pops into her brain: a chocolate-mousse that uses black beans. “I know it sounds weird, but it’s actually delicious,” she says. The university implemented a business-clothing closet for students to both donate and receive business clothing for job interviews, class presentations, and other professional opportunities. Raines admits she struggles when it comes to making non-need-based purchases. she says. “I have a horrific time buying clothes for myself or buying anything beyond the bare minimum,” she says. “I feel horrifically guilty because you don’t know when it [food insecurity] is going to happen again.”

The SUNY System Administration and Food Insecurity Task Force also works with statewide programs such as Nourish Your Neighbor and Hunger Solutions to help ease food insecurity for students. Nourish Your Neighbor works with colleges, students, and the Boy Scouts of America to provide nutrition education and collect healthy food items to donate to various food pantries in Ontario County, N.Y. The program has grown every year, and Christy Richards, a public health educator and Nourish Your Neighbor coordinator, notes with delight the increase in healthy items — 50% more whole-grain pasta, 22% more quinoa, and 55% more proteins than the year before. “In 2018, of the healthy fruit items, 67% were 100% fruit juice. That’s huge!” Richards says.

Ultimately, food insecurity on college campuses requires a range of solutions and resources. For some, even the task of starting a small food pantry sounds daunting. At the SU food pantry, Syeisha Byrd, the director of Office Engagement Programs at Hendricks Chapel, keeps a positive attitude. The SU Student Association recently donated $10,000 to the SU Food Pantry from their rollover funds, which traditionally go toward concerts and events. The SU Food Pantry is about the size of a small closet and features four different shelving units, filled with food like pasta, beans, and canned soups along with care products such as tampons. Since learning about the SU Food Pantry more than a year ago, Raines has used it herself and introduced it to others. When she learned about an underclassmen student struggling with the same food insecurity issues she faced, she stepped in to help. This semester, she met a freshman in a class that she co-facilitated who shared she was food insecure. After talking about resources on campus, she invited the student to dinner at her house. “I think my reaction to knowing that other people are hungry is first anger — not at them, of course, but anger that this is still happening,” she says. Then, she thinks, “Okay, how are we going to fix this?” After graduation, Raines plans to take the year off and live with her sister in Washington, D.C. while working and applying to law school. But her worry of food insecurity remains a constant in her life. “It’s deeply ingrained. Like I don’t care if I’m making $150,000, I’m still probably going to know exactly what’s in my pantry,” she says. “I’m going to be afraid of it for the rest of my life. I’m going to constantly be thinking about it for the rest of my life.”


The College and University Food Bank Alliance (CUFBA) focuses on helping college students struggling with food insecurity. Their website offers specific resources and pantry information for different areas. Email the organization at If you or someone you know is struggling with food insecurity, you may be eligible for SNAP Benefits for college students. Contact your local SNAP office and find easy-to-understand information through their directory.

View a complete list of resources.