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Food Insecurity, Covid-19, and Role of Student Affairs Educators

September 1, 2020 Michael J. Stebleton University of Minnesota-Twin Cities

JCC Connexions, Vol. 6, No. 3, August 2020 

New Spaces & Roles for Student Affairs: An Ongoing Column of JCC Connexions

Food Insecurity as a Critical Issue

Food insecurity affects many college students. The Covid-19 pandemic—particularly the subsequent economic crisis—challenges higher education professionals to meet the needs of food insecure students. While food insecurity existed prior to the pandemic, the virus exacerbated the problem and will continue to do so during the uncertain academic year that lies ahead. Among the aims of this blog post are (a) to highlight the demographics of students who experience food insecurity; (b) to stress that disparities and inequities exist among food insecure student groups; and (c) to provide several recommendations and strategies for student affairs educators who support food insecure students.

What is Food Insecurity?

In this blog post, I use a 2019 Hope Lab Report definition of food insecurity: “the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe food, or the ability to acquire such food in a socially acceptable manner” (p. 5). Food insecurity exists on a continuum from mild (e.g., worrying about the ability to obtain food) to severe insecurity (e.g., experiencing real hunger). Food insecurity can be chronic or transitory, with students’ insecurity status shifting based on varied factors (Adamovic et al., 2020). To be clear, food insecurity is a real problem; it is not a rite of passage or some mythical shared experience that romanticizes college life. The prevalence of food insecurity in colleges and universities is higher than in US households (Nazmi et al., 2019).

Michael Stebleton SqUntil recently, much of the attention about addressing food insecurity in the college-age population originated from public health, nutrition, sociology, and anthropology. Higher education scholars, led by Sara Goldrick-Rab and others, are focusing the spotlight on strategies for educators to support students who experience food insecurity issues. My team and I recently shared findings in the Review of Higher Education (Spring 2020) from a qualitative study that focused on the food insecure experiences of 23 undergraduate students. Despite increased awareness and attention to this critical issue, higher education and student affairs professionals can do more to address food insecurity.

Demographics and Scope of Problem

Prior to the pandemic, food insecurity was a well-documented problem. The rates of food insecurity vary from campus to campus; defining and measuring what constitutes food insecurity remains a challenge. In the Hope Lab survey, approximately 48% of two-year college students experienced food insecurity, and 41% of four-year students identified as food insecure. Upwards to 10% of college students have gone an entire day without eating. At the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, approximately 19.1% of students experienced food insecurity in the past year (2018) according to the College Student Health Survey. Disparities exist among student groups. For example, some Students of Color report higher rates of food insecurity compared to White students; international students experience food insecurity more than domestic students; and First-Generation (FG) students indicate higher rates compared to non-FG students. Not surprisingly, food insecurity relates to income. Pell eligible students experience food insecurity at higher rates than non-Pell eligible students do. The pandemic will lead to even greater disparities.

The Virus is Not the Great Equalizer

The pandemic will forever shape higher education, including the college student experience. In the early days of the pandemic, pundits of all sorts called the virus the “great equalizer.” Even Madonna proclaimed from the comfort of her bathtub that the virus would essentially make all of us equal. This is far from the truth. Covid-19 continues to affect BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) communities at higher rates compared to White communities. According to recent CDC data (as of June 12, 2020), age adjusted hospitalization rates are highest among non-Hispanic American Indian or Alaska Native and non-Hispanic Black persons, following by Hispanic or Latino persons. Non-Hispanic Black persons have a hospitalization rate approximately five times that of non-Hispanic White persons (all category titles used by CDC).

In a Real College Hope Lab Report from this spring, the pandemic clearly affected college students in terms of their need securities. The data included responses from 38,602 students from 54 colleges and universities. Although the response rate was notably low (6.7%), the findings were powerful. Nearly 3 in 5 students were experiencing basic needs insecurity (food and/or housing). Approximately, 44% of students at two-year institutions were affected by food insecurity and 38% at four-year institutions. Experiencing homelessness due to the pandemic was evident: 11% at two-year schools and 15% at four-year institutions. In terms of inequities, the Black/White gap in basic needs insecurity was 19 percentage points.

In a new survey by the Healthy Minds Network and the American College Health Association, 66% of students reported that the pandemic has caused them more stress, and over 30% reported that their mental health negatively affected their academic performance. It should be noted that food insecurity (and Covid-19) also affects “parenting students” and women students disproportionally. In addition, food insecurity influences graduate and professional students. As evidenced by the data above, the Covid-19 virus is unjustly affecting communities of color, and the economic fallout from the pandemic unequally influences these same communities.

Student Affairs Recommendations: The Role of Advocacy

Student affairs educators across campus can serve as advocates for students experiencing food insecurity. From this perspective, I echo the call for action initiated by Shipley and Christopher in their 2018 Journal of College and Character article, in which they argued for a collective, campus-wide response to the food insecurity problem. The time is right to respond. For some practitioners, this might be a new role or space to enter; for others, it is a reminder of the important work that needs to continue. Food security is a social justice issue; educators should embrace this work as they strive to affect the lives of their students. Furthermore, student affairs professionals should join existing efforts on their respective campuses. Below are some suggestions and resources for educators and students.

- Student affairs educators should continue learning about community resources and new approaches that support food insecure students. Raphael and Goldrick-Rab (March 2020) recommended a case management approach, highlighting exemplary programs at the University of Arizona and San Jose-Evergreen Community College. The guiding principles are grounded in social work—and many institutions hire professionally trained social workers to work alongside other student affairs professionals.

At the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, the Office of Student Affairs has hired two full-time social workers to assist students with a range of issues, including food insecurity. Two case managers serving over 50,000 students is woefully insufficient. Investments in prevention and intervention efforts must expand to better support students.

- Work to reduce stigma around food insecurity. My former student Kate Diamond and I highlighted this point in a 2017 The Mentor article where we argued: “Students may not always feel comfortable disclosing their experiences of food insecurity or other symptoms of financial hardship.” Educators, including faculty members, should communicate with all students around these issues to reduce stigma and avoid singling out individuals. For example, practitioners can provide information about food resources and other services in a standard packet shared with all of their students. Faculty members can include a statement about food resources in their syllabi and discuss with students at the beginning of the semester.

-Expand emergency relief funding for students in need. Student affairs practitioners can serve as brokers for students accessing these funds. During the spring semester 2020, most institutions added or expanded these short-term initiatives for students. Readers may want to listen to episode 1 of the podcast, The Key with Inside Higher Education, where panelists discussed the distribution of $6.3 billion in emergency aid to students. The financial need still exists for students—and the need will be even greater this fall 2020.

-Enrollment in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) program should be easier and educators can assist students with the application process—and advocate for state and federal policy changes that make participation less onerous.

Additional Policy and Institutional Actions

Student affairs educators can continue to learn about how to address food insecurity issues. Katharine M. Broton and Clare L. Cady edited a book titled, Food Insecurity on Campus: Action and Intervention that highlighted the multifaceted aspects of the food insecurity problem. In one of the chapters that explored policy implications, authors Duke-Benfield and Chu (2020) pushed for federal and state policy changes. Several of these changes include:

-Increase the SNAP benefit total. “The average benefit provided by SNAP equates to roughly $1.40 per person per meal” (p. 254).

- Change SNAP eligibility conditions. Current federal laws limit SNAP eligibility for students unless they are working, are caring for children, or qualify for another exemption; access should be easier. States should exclude state-funded work-study dollars as income for SNAP.

-College students should be provided with a basic meal guarantee. As part of a financial aid plan, “all colleges and universities should provide an allotment for 10 meals per week” (p. 257).

-Encourage students, faculty, and colleagues to lead and invest effort into campus initiatives such as student-led food recovery programs and campus gardens (Ullevig et al., 2020). For example, students and staff at Inver Hills Community College (MN) regularly participate in maintaining the community garden and orchard on campus, which provides produce for students and local pantries.

-Institutional leaders can take additional actions. Extend efforts beyond existing place-based program such as food pantries and Swipe Out Hunger initiatives. With most institutions moving to online education in March, and recognizing that many will continue to offer hybrid or distance learning in the fall, the access to food insecurity resources from afar will be vital for food insecure students.

The Moment for Action is Now

In my last blog (May 2020), I advocated for re-envisioning work as a series of small victories, characterized by incremental steps towards progress. This same philosophy applies to addressing the food insecurity problem. Given the uncertainty of a future in which some students may (or may not) be returning to campus in the fall, educators must be proactive. Building power through partnerships across campus remains critical. Moreover, a multi-disciplinary approach with scholars and practitioners working across our silos may prove to be the most efficient and strategic way to address food insecurity concerns. For many students, the problem will likely only worsen. If we are not already having these conversations about food insecurity issues with our colleagues, fellow faculty, and students, the time is ripe to begin now. A community of care approach to address food insecurity requires a collective response. Our students depend on our awareness and our actions.


Acknowledgement:  The author would like to thank Lisa Kaler, Rebecca Leighton, and Morgan Bartlett for their helpful feedback and edits to this piece.