Exacerbated Inequities: Food Insecurity, COVID-19, and Higher Education
By Michael J. Stebleton & Lisa S. Kaler | July 7, 2020
Michael J. Stebleton is an associate professor of higher education and Lisa S. Kaler is a PhD candidate in higher education at the University of Minnesota.
In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, well-meaning pundits, scholars, politicians, and even celebrities called the virus “the great equalizer.” But as more data emerge from regions affected by the virus and the associated economic crisis, one thing has become increasingly clear: the virus is definitely not a great equalizer. Instead, the pandemic has exposed deep inequalities in the United States based on race, class, gender, and ability. Racial inequalities that undermine the health and safety of communities of color continue to rise to the forefront of the American consciousness in recent weeks, punctuated by the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Food insecurity represents an ongoing problem that the virus and the subsequent economic crisis have amplified, particularly among communities of color—notably Women of Color. In recent years, food insecurity on college campuses in the United States has attracted the attention of higher education researchers and administrators. As post-secondary institutions grapple with their own financial upheavals and concerns about student wellbeing, educators must support the increasing numbers of students who experience food insecurity. Food insecurity already underscores gender disparities on college campuses, a dilemma now worsened by the pandemic and its uncertainty.
Food Insecurity on Campus
Food insecurity is defined as the “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe food, or the ability to acquire such food in a socially acceptable manner,” according to a 2019 report by the Hope Lab. In that survey, nearly half of college and university students reported experiencing food insecurity. At some institutions such as community and technical colleges, these statistics are even higher, and the needs may worsen due to the pandemic.
Food insecurity exists on a continuum from mild (e.g., worrying about the ability to obtain food) to severe (e.g., experiencing hunger). In a qualitative study of food insecurity among university students, students who experience food insecurity shared that they develop strategies to avoid or ignore their hunger, such as rationing meals. Students also discussed managing their anxiety associated with the lack of healthy and adequate food.
Food insecurity is a gendered issue, and one that disproportionately affects parenting students.
Food insecurity is a gendered issue, and one that disproportionately affects parenting students. According to a May 2020 report by the Hope Lab, nearly 20% of college students are “parenting students,” meaning they are raising children while enrolled. In that report, the authors emphasized that female-identified students are nearly twice as likely as male-identified students to be parenting while in college. More parenting students are single parents than are coupled, and Black and American Indian or Alaska Native women are still more likely than women from other backgrounds to be parenting students.
These groups, including women (particularly Women of Color) and single parents, face consistent barriers toward their timely completion of a degree. And according to the Hope Lab, they are much more likely to face basic needs insecurity: 53% of parenting students experienced food insecurity in the prior 30 days; 68% of parenting students were housing insecure in the previous year; and 17% of parenting students were homeless. In addition, there are other well-documented disparities among student groups who experience food insecurity, including Students of Color, international students, and first-generation students.
Food insecurity is not a new phenomenon. Even before the pandemic, recent changes to the higher education landscape exacerbated the problem of student hunger: rising costs of tuition, higher costs of housing, reduced state funding for higher education, decreased purchasing power of state and federal aid, and the fact that many college students are ineligible for most public benefits programs.
As the economic fallout from the pandemic continues, it is critical to acknowledge that women are bearing the bigger brunt. Women are more likely to be unemployed and to take on additional childcare work when schools close, and they make up the majority of frontline, essential workers. Women students who work in the industries shut down by the stay home orders across the country, including hospitality and retail, are likely to be severely impacted. Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, recently predicted that this recession would be a “very female event.”
Inequities will exacerbate the ramifications of the pandemic. For students who experience food insecurity, the shift to online learning has and will continue to create additional challenges. Women Students of Color, who are more likely to be parents and more likely to face food insecurity, must be considered when institutions move forward with plans to teach and support students in the ongoing pandemic.
Women Students of Color, who are more likely to be parents and more likely to face food insecurity, must be considered when institutions move forward with plans to teach and support students in the ongoing pandemic.
Fortunately, extant policies and programs at various institutions exist that can help institutional leaders support students experiencing food insecurity during the pandemic and beyond. We support the following initiatives:
- Broaden college and university food pantries to provide food to students experiencing food insecurity. More institutions need to create food pantries while others must expand capacity and strategize to operate safely with social distancing guidelines. This should include strategies to support students learning remotely.
- Extend efforts such as Swipe Out Hunger, an on-campus program that partners with dining services to allow students to share meals with students in need.
- Expand emergency grant programs for students to include small grants that address food and housing needs.
The May 2020 Hope Lab report also outlines several specific policy recommendations, including:
- Offer additional monies for federal child subsidy programs.
- Explore nonprofit resources such as SwiftStudent, aimed to support students with the financial aid process.
- Increase enrollment flexibility in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to allow eligible college students experiencing food insecurity to enroll.
Food Insecurity on Campus: Action and Intervention, a recent book edited by Katharine M. Broton and Clare L. Cady, highlights the varied facets of the food insecurity problem. Contributors Amy Ellen Duke-Benfield and Samuel Chu advocate federal and state policy changes to address student hunger, including:
- Increasing the SNAP benefit total from the current average benefit of roughly $1.40 per person per meal.
- Excluding state-funded work-study dollars as income for SNAP.
- Providing post-secondary students with a basic meal guarantee of 10 meals per week as part of a financial aid plan.
Higher education leaders are policymakers; they should situate themselves such that they can both implement policies that directly affect students and firmly advocate for the needs of students through government relations work. In addition to grappling with public safety concerns related to the pandemic, leaders must begin to critically explore racial and gender injustices on campus. This needs to include the issue of food insecurity and the disproportionate percentage of Women of Color who experience it.
In addition to grappling with public safety concerns related to the pandemic, leaders must begin to critically explore racial and gender injustices on campus. This needs to include the issue of food insecurity and the disproportionate percentage of Women of Color who experience it.
While it remains unclear if students will return to campus in the fall of 2020, at this time, approximately 67% of colleges plan some return to campus. In response, administrators, faculty, student affairs educators, and policymakers will need to collaborate to best respond to students’ needs; indeed, it will take a community-wide effort to address this growing problem influencing higher education and students during these unprecedented and challenging times.