Alabama A&M University student Justin Franks was recently awarded WHNT’s ‘Pay It Forward’ recognition for starting a student food pantry at the university. With $40, support from the university and a viral Facebook post, Franks began handing out healthy snacks and small toiletry items to students who could not afford them.
His efforts have helped to feed more than 100 students on campus, which would surprise many, considering that most residential students are required to have a meal plan. But a new study suggests that even students who can afford the mandatory dining plan, along with non-residential students who opt out of campus living to save on costs, may be suffering from hunger.
And the numbers are even higher for African American students.
The Data on Hunger
The National Student Campaign Against Hunger & Homelessness’ latest report, Hunger on Campus: The Challenge of Food Insecurity for college Students, draws insight from more than 3,700 students at two-year and four-year colleges throughout the country. More than 45 percent of respondents reported having at least one incident of food insecurity, defined as the inability to afford or to access nutritious food, in the last 30 days.
Among the same group, 57 percent of African American students taking the survey reported food insecurity, outpacing white students by 17 percent. 64 percent of students reporting some incident of hunger, also reported challenges with stable housing while enrolled.
More than 50 percent of all survey takers said that hunger has, at least once, forced them to miss a class or a study session, to decide against participating in extracurricular activities, or to choose between purchasing food or a textbook.
For students with meal plans, 69 percent reported eating nine weekly meals or less in the dining hall because of a lack of variety or extended access to the cafeteria. More than 40 percent of students run out of meal points before the end of the semester.
What Does it Mean for HBCUs?
The problem for HBCU students is two fold. For many students who can actually afford a meal plan, scores of them do not like or frequently do not eat the food offered in the dining hall. For some HBCU alumni, this is an incomprehensible reality in the face of hunger; many of us would eat Frosted Flakes three times a day rather than turn down a meal.
But what about students with dietary restrictions for health and religious reasons? And what about the operating hours and access of the cafeteria for students in class, or those who work jobs and are not able to eat at the dining hall or to afford food off-campus?
And even for the students who can afford meals off-campus, how many HBCUs are situated in cities with robust dining options beyond McDonald’s, Jack in the Box, Popeye’s, Chinese carryout, or 7–11?
The US Department of Agriculture breaks down food deserts through a visual map, showing the scope of inadequate food access throughout the mid-Atlantic and Southeastern United States; home to many of the nation’s HBCUs.
And some schools, like Paul Quinn College, have become hubs of activism against food deserts.
As students, it can be funny to watch classmates and roommates live off of Ramen noodles, grilled cheese sandwiches, and the dollar menu. But for institutions, could there be a stronger connection between hunger and the college affordability crisis for many black students?
Food access may not be an institutional crisis like enrollment or campus crime, but it is an emerging area demanding institutional response, as an effort to address elements which may impact student performance and retention.