College students deserve freedom from food insecurity

Students+enjoying+food+at+the+Commons

Elana Bush | Photo Editor

Students enjoy their meals at The Commons.

Nketiah Berko, Views Editor

Last April, 45% of college students reported being “food insecure in the prior 30 days,” according to a survey by Temple University’s Hope Center for College, Community and Justice. This study reflects the inability of millions of American students to satisfy a basic human need. To alleviate this problem, colleges should guarantee all students a cost-free meal plan.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food security as “access … to enough food for an active, healthy life.” For more than 37 million Americans, however, such security is far removed from their reality. Whether from a lack of access or a lack of affordability, a segment of the population the size of Canada currently lack the resources to enjoy a healthy life.

Debates over tuition-free college have importantly drawn attention to the prohibitive costs young adults face simply to obtain an education. Less attention, however, has been drawn to the day-to-day costs many students face once at college.

Nonetheless, food security is a basic need for students, yet one which studies show is going unmet. Students unsure where their next meal is coming from cannot be expected to live up to their full potential. The Temple University survey showed as much, revealing that food-insecure students report grades of C or lower at higher rates than their food-secure peers.

Few options exist, however, to address this pressing need. For example, 68% of students experiencing food insecurity are employed, and students with their basic needs unmet a category including food-insecure students work more hours than other working students. 

Moreover, existing benefits, such as the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, are vastly underutilized. More than two million potentially SNAP-eligible students did not receive benefits in 2017, for instance. Worse, the Trump administration has instituted stricter work requirements for SNAP recipients, a decision which continues the decades-long erosion of the social safety net. 

The failure of current supports for food insecure students illustrate their practical and moral inadequacy. Such approaches put the onus on students to “prove” their neediness — in other words, to prove themselves somehow “worthy” of society’s charity. In the absence of federal or even state assistance, therefore, colleges should step in to address an unmet need.

Such a challenge, however, is surely not a challenge for the audacious. Tulane, for instance, can first make a significant effort to determine how many enrolled students are food insecure in order to assess whether its students, like those at its peer institutions, face this nationwide problem. 

The results of such a study would undoubtedly guide policymakers in determining the most effective way of providing food to all students. Precedence for these efforts already exist. All 64 State University of New York universities, for instance, now feature either a food pantry or “stigma-free food access available to their students,” according to the SUNY website.

Whichever solution universities like Tulane rely on, however, must reflect the central moral premise that all students deserve a dependable source of food. For all the talk of Tulane’s new dining facility, a Commons in a school where students go hungry is nothing but a name. 

At a school in which all students’ needs are met, however, it can embody an ethos, one of mutual interest, welfare and solidarity. In a country where even elementary students face “student meal debt,” we must make an intentional effort to push back against the privilege of apathy and banish hunger from college campuses. 

Universities like Tulane have the power to take this crucial first step.