Campus food pantries address food insecurity, boost student health, survey finds

A new Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior study indicates that college campus food pantries (CFPs) improve students’ perceived health, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports. The report surveyed 1,855 University of California system students about their mental and physical health before and after using CFPs, which are available on all 10 UC system campuses.

The majority of respondents were women (78%) and first-generation students (55%); nearly half were Pell grant recipients (47%). Fifty-nine percent of respondents had begun using CFPs in the most recent academic year, while 40% were long-term users. Sixty percent of survey participants reported experiencing food insecurity during the most recent academic term.

Supporting mental, physical health

Students who frequently used the pantries reported improved physical and mental health, compared with students who used the pantries less. Before accessing the food pantry, 28% of students retrospectively reported having very good/excellent perceived health, and 27% said they very often/always had sufficient sleep. After accessing the food pantry, 39% of students retrospectively reported very good/excellent perceived health, and 39% very often/always had sufficient sleep. After using CFPs, students also said they experienced fewer depressive symptoms, such as stress, anxiety, hopelessness, and feeling overwhelmed.

Related: HBCU initiative aims to address widespread basic needs insecurity >

A call for more CFPs

CFPs have become the primary response to food insecurity among college students, which has increased since the Great Recession of 2008 and through the pandemic beginning 2020, according to The Chronicle. A survey conducted by the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice found that nearly three in five students experienced basic needs insecurity, with 44% of students at two-year colleges and 38% of students at four-year colleges reporting they were food-insecure in the 30 days prior to the survey.

Related: Organizations join forces to step up fight against food insecurity >

Financial barriers like expensive housing can exacerbate these gaps, leaving many students paying rent and other housing costs before securing other necessities like food, says Suzanna Martinez, lead researcher for the survey of UC students and an assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California at San Francisco. After a 2017 study by Martinez and other colleagues found that 44% of UC students were experiencing food insecurity, the authors advocated for CFPs on every UC campus, a goal that was accomplished in 2019. The Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior survey suggests these “food pantries are serving a purpose” as more students struggle to meet their basic needs, Martinez tells The Chronicle.

Related: Peer programs connect food-insecure college students with SNAP benefits >

Currently, more than 700 college campuses have pantries (learn more about Georgetown University’s Hoya Hub food pantry) or are in the process of setting them up. Yet, that accounts for only 25% of all four-year colleges in the country. Martinez and her colleagues hope the results of the new study will encourage other universities to establish CFPs while also helping students apply for federal food-purchasing programs like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Oregon and Illinois are among several states that have required public colleges to hire on-campus benefit navigators to help low-income students access food, housing, and financial assistance. However, until universities find more sustainable, longer-term solutions to food insecurity, Martinez says, “food pantries are going to be the first resort for students.” 

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