Urging our nation's leaders to end hunger

Hunger Is a Rising Trend Among College Students

Duke caf

This image of the Duke University cafeteria line circa 1955 illustrates the traditional image of well-fed college students. Unfortunately, hunger on campus is becoming more common. (Photo courtesy Duke Yearbook via Flickr)

By Eric Bond

The 1978 movie “Animal House,” reinforced the notion that college is little more than an extended sleepover for relatively privileged youth.  One memorable scene that highlights this theme particularly well is the food fight in the cafeteria. It’s an amusing moment of unbridled madness that continues the pie-in-the-face tradition introduced in the 1909 slapstick comedy “Mr. Flip.” In a land of plenty, playing with food is funny.

But college is rarely the bacchanalia that it is portrayed to be in popular culture. Real students from real families make sacrifices to attend college because they know that a college degree gives them a chance at holding a middle class job. When you are working hard in school and hard at a part-time job, you don’t have a lot of time for food fights or toga parties. According to Academe Online, the number of full-time students who work 20 to 34 hours a week is rising. Especially during these tough times, students face the crunch of diminishing family resources and rising tuition costs.

The struggle of students after they finish college, saddled with debt, has become a perennial feature in news publications. But the latest edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education takes a look at current students who have to hit the books on empty stomachs. “Money Worries Keep Students Going to Campus Food Banks” reveals the reality of scholars who are able to scrape together enough money to attend college only to find that they are shut out of the cafeteria upon arrival. According to the article this trend is leading to an increase in on-campus and near-campus food banks for hungry students.

While comprehensive data have not yet been collected, some colleges have begun tracking the development. For example, the City University of New York (CUNY) found that “39 percent [of students] had either gone hungry for lack of money, skipped meals, or been unable to afford balanced meals” in 2009. According to the study, African-American and Latino students were the most vulnerable. 

Simple arithmetic shows why this is a growing problem. For example, Casey Haynes, a graduate student in accounting at the University of West Virginia, cannot make it through the month without help from the university’s food bank. He has taken out “tens of thousands in federal student loans—and private loans” to cover tuition. But the $500 he earns at the local coffee shop barely covers his $400 monthly rent.

Not surprisingly, “students who have limited access to food have higher levels of stress and more trouble concentrating on academics,” according to Nicholas Freudenberg, a CUNY Public Health professor and co-author of the study. In the Chronicle article, Freudenberg said that “he worries about students' access to food stamps and other forms of assistance, as well as the stigma attached to using them.”

This situation highlights the depth of the hunger problem in America and why it is so important that the remaining safety net be preserved. Students should be worrying about their biology midterm, not the source of their next meal.

A food fight makes a funny scene in a movie. But imagine what it would look like to a hungry scholar peering through the window of the cafeteria and watching perfectly good mashed potatoes hit the wall.


Read more about Bread’s mini-campaigns to preserve a Circle of Protection around programs that support hungry and poor people.

Eric Bond is managing editor for Bread for the World.


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