Food Insecurity Hampers College Completion for California’s Students

While California’s college costs and living expenses continue to rise, financial aid isn’t keeping pace, leaving many students without consistent access to healthy meals. This instability has a dramatic impact on students’ quality of life and is among the many factors eroding college completion rates in California. Intuitively, it’s easy to understand why a lack of food makes getting through college more difficult, and data on student outcomes paint a more detailed and bleak picture of what happens to students who struggle to eat.

Roughly 40 percent of University of California (UC)and California State University (CSU)2 students experience food insecurity. Statewide, however, only 19 percent of households with children and 12 percent of people overall experience food insecurity.3 UC and CSU leaders are trying to make sense of this gap.

The data show a ripple effect: students face a variety of related challenges as a result of food insecurity. They are more likely to have lower grades and leave school.4 Further,  food insecurity is linked to poorer general health,5 cognitive problems,6 and anxiety.7

Looking at the data through an equity lens, we see clear trends based on race and ethnicity. At both UC and CSU, Black and Latino students are more likely than others to experience food insecurity. If the state is committed to achieving equity in higher education and improving statewide college completion rates, tackling food insecurity must be a priority.

If the state is committed to achieving equity in higher education and improving statewide college completion rates, tackling food insecurity must be a priority.

Not only will such investments boost educational achievement in the short term, they’ll also pay dividends in the long-run by improving students’ employment prospects. California faces a degree and credential shortage of over 2 million by 2025, and if the state intends to close that gap and maintain its economic foothold, it must advance a plan to confront the staggering rates of student food insecurity.

What is food insecurity?

Food insecure students include those whom the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) classifies as having either low or very low food security. While low food security is described as experiencing reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet, very low food security is characterized by disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.8

Food insecurity inequities on college campuses

UC’s basic needs student survey from 2016  found that Black (60%) and Hispanic students (59%) experience the highest levels of food insecurity. It also found that students who experience food insecurity as children at home are more likely to experience similar hardships in college. Nevertheless, most food insecure students (57%) did not experience food insecurity as children. One out of four food insecure students reports having to choose between paying for food or education and housing. Fifteen percent of the same group have to choose between paying for food or medicine and healthcare.

At CSU, Black (59%), Pacific Islander (59%), and Hispanic (47%) students are most likely to experience food insecurity. First-generation student status (not assessed in the UC survey) compounds the connection between race and food insecurity at CSU. Black first-generation students (66%) are the group most likely to experience food insecurity. Other groups with relatively high incidence of food insecurity include Pell Grant recipients (51%), transfer students (43%), and foster youth (63%).

Identifying inequities in the education-to-employment pipeline is critical to effectively closing California’s degree and credential gap. Unsurprisingly, groups that are more likely to experience food insecurity are those with historically low degree attainment. Focusing on basic needs insecurity is one way to tackle inequality in higher education, promote individual social mobility, and maintain a prosperous economy.

Focusing on basic needs insecurity is one way to tackle inequality in higher education, promote individual social mobility, and maintain a prosperous economy.

Policymakers have worked to address food insecurity among college students at the state level

As the issue of food security garners more attention, the state has stepped up its efforts to ensure that students are well fed. Over the past two years, a number of key bills and budget initiatives have made their way through the legislature, among them:

  • Assembly Bill 1747 (Weber), passed in 2016, leverages CalFresh, California’s food assistance program. It requires colleges located in counties enrolled in the Restaurant Meals Program, which enables CalFresh recipients to purchase food from participating restaurants, to apply to become approved vendors. This allows students to purchase prepared meals on campus using their CalFresh benefits.
  • AB 214 (Weber), passed in 2017, requires the California Student Aid Commission to notify Cal Grant recipients of their CalFresh eligibility. The bill also requires the Department of Social Services to maintain a list of employment and training programs that qualify students to receive CalFresh benefits.
  • Hunger Free Campus Initiative, part of California’s 2017 state budget, provided the UC, CSU, and California Community College systems each a one-time $2.5 million award to implement a meal credit sharing program called Swipe Out Hunger, build campus food pantries, and designate employees to connect students to CalFresh.
  • AB 1894 (Weber), currently in the Senate Appropriations Committee, would further improve access to federal benefits by expanding the CalFresh Restaurant Meals Program to all CSU locations regardless of whether or not their county participates.

Strategies to address food insecurity and degree completion

UC has a Food Access and Security plan that includes five components: on-campus student services and programming, off-campus partnership and engagement, campus coordination, systemwide coordination, and research and data collection. In particular, recent initiatives include expanding food pantry storage and access, increasing CalFresh participation among students, and developing food voucher benefits.

Recommendations in the CSU report are focused on developing more affordable housing and food options, targeting strategies at the most vulnerable student populations, and conducting longitudinal research to explore protective factors for persistence and degree completion. Other recommendations are focused on fostering awareness and response to food insecurity.

These strategies fit into a broader ecosystem of policies and institutional changes to foster degree completion. For example, both reports highlight the importance of consistent data collection, which is important not only for ameliorating student hunger but also for improving higher education outcomes overall. Currently, each of California’s public education entities—UC, CSU, and California Community Colleges—maintain their own data systems and are not subject to any public reporting to the state on student outcomes. While independently rich, this segmented approach limits the public’s understanding of how students move through the higher education system and what barriers limit their ability to successfully complete. A statewide integrated data system, however, could better illuminate student pathways and help institutions and policymakers support students where they are most likely to falter.

Moving forward

Awareness of the prevalence of food insecurity among college students is growing. Institutions and the state are beginning to respond, but it’s important to maintain momentum. The research is clear: hunger inhibits students’ ability to learn and persist in school, and food insecure students are far less likely to graduate.9 Food assistance programs and other infrastructure to support students’ basic needs are critical investments in California’s long-term prosperity. By supporting college students to completion, we improve their employment prospects and reduce their need for future support—a win for students and a win for California’s economy.

NOTES

1. Global Food Initiative (2017, December). Global Food Initiative: Food and Housing Security at the University of California. https://www.ucop.edu/global-fo...

2. Crutchfield, R., and Maguire, J. (2018, January). Study of Student Basic Needs. The California State University. https://www2.calstate.edu/impact-of-the-csu/student-success/basic-needs-initiative/Documents/BasicNeedsStudy_phaseII_withAccessibilityComments.pdf

3. Feeding America (2018). Map the Meal Gaphttp://map.feedingamerica.org/...

4. Global Food Initiative (2017, December). Global Food Initiative: Food and Housing Security at the University of Californiahttps://www.ucop.edu/global-fo...

5. Stuff, J. E., Casey, P. H., Szeto, K. L., Gossett, J. M., Robbins, J. M., Simpson, P. M., Connell, C., Bogle, M. L. (2004, September 1). Household Food Insecurity Is Associated with Adult Health Status. The Journal of Nutrition, 134(9), 2330-2335. https://doi.org/10.1093/jn/134...

6. Gunderson, C., and Ziliak, J. P. (2014). RESEARCH REPORT: Child Food Insecurity in the U.S.: Trends, Causes, and Policy Options. The Future of Children. The Future of Children, 1-19. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/26...

7. Gunderson, C., and Ziliak, J. P. (2014). RESEARCH REPORT: Child Food Insecurity in the U.S.: Trends, Causes, and Policy Options. The Future of Children. The Future of Children, 1-19. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/26...

8. United States Department of Agriculture (2006). Definitions of Food Securityhttps://www.ers.usda.gov/topic...

9. Broton, K., and Goldrick-Rab, S. (2016, March 7). The Dark Side of College (Un)Affordability: Food and Housing Insecurity in Higher Education. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 48(1), 16-25. https://www.tandfonline.com/do...