Commentary: Students Don’t Spend a Lot on Food Each Week

Earlier this week we presented information on how much per month students were spending on campus housing, including meals.  The monthly cost here is $1473 for triple occupancy, $1626 for double and nearly $1800 for a single room.

Not only did it seem that the students were spending more than market rate for the base housing rate (around $1050 a month for a single room) but they were also spending an additional $400 to $600 a month on food which seems to be a lot more than they would have spent on their own).  I suggested “more like half that” which would have put them in the $200 to $300 range.

Not surprisingly, I got pushback by Eileen Samitz: “You have proven nothing of the sort, but you sure are trying to sell your ridiculous comparison of on-campus housing with meals, to off-campus housing without meals.  Oh yes, and you believe that students live on $50 a week for food. Right…  So you think anybody is believing this desperate pitch of yours? It is simply absurd.”

My sense has been that students don’t have much in the way of disposable money.  That they make up for paying more than half of their take home money on rent each month by skimping on other spending, including food.  When I was in school 20 to 25 years, I remember students who would survive for months on a bag of generic cereal, some milk and packages of ramen (which you can still get for less than 30 cents a package or a 12-pack for less than $2).

So I reached out to the resources I have – my interns and some college Facebook friends.  What I found was interesting to say the least.  There is a range of student spending.  A good number of
students are not only spending $50 a week, they are spending less than that.  There are some, though, that are spending between $90 and $120 per week.

So here are some of the responses I got – I’m not putting names down, but this gives you a good flavor.

“If I’m living on top ramen and eggs, I can live on like $15 to $20/month.  If I’m trying to avoid malnutrition it goes up to like $40-$50 (per week).”

“Not counting my meal swipes, 20 to 25, granted I have my pantry with spices and garlic.  That’s with like trail mix for class breaks.  I buy salad stuff and chicken, but I make all my marinades and dressing which saves money.  My roommate spends like $40/$45 week.  And we both cook so it’s not frozen or pre-made items.”

“When I was living in Davis, I was using EBT/ CalFresh which gave me up to $193 a month.  I could use it only on cold foods but in Davis, Safeway, the Nugget, SaveMart, etc. would also accept EBT which made food choices easier.  Before I found out about the program I would (spend) ~$100 per month.  But I also saved a lot on rent so it was easier to budget.”

“I spend about $40 a week.”

“When I wasn’t using a meal plan I was operating off $100 for food a week. Some of the students that I interned with in DC at the time where operating off of less than $50 a week for food.”

“I just reviewed my spending, I spend on average $200 a month on groceries (most of it at grocery outlet) and another $100 on eating out a month.”

“$120 a week.”

“My housemates (3) and I shop together and share everything, which is about $120 a month in groceries. As a full time student with an on campus job I also spend at a minimum another $60/week buying food on campus.”

“Since my schedule pretty much forces me to eat out every meal I spend about $200 a week on food.”

“I just checked my monthly expenses: 2 person household (both of us are students), we spend 775$/month, which makes it 97$/week/person. We almost never eat out. and the food we buy is nutritious (no carbs, no sugars).”

“My grocery shopping is based more around the amount of foodstuff left in my cabinet than on a regular shopping schedule, but my snap benefits provide an average of $48 a week, and I’m usually pretty secure with the amount I’m provided.”

“The only way I stayed ‘financially solvent’ during undergrad was the food credit provided by the CoHo. We got $1/hour worked in food credit. I could at least get a bagel. I tried to keep it to $100 every 2 weeks on groceries.”

“I spent about $40-$50 a week on groceries and $20-$30 eating out.”

“$25-$50/week on groceries + $10-$30/month eating out.”

While this is by no means a scientific survey, it gives you a flavor for what students are spending on food each week – and how they get there.  None of this surprises me, but I am concerned that many in this community are disconnected from the hardships that students are facing.

A lot of people in this community are unaware of just how much students are spending each month on rent and the ways that they are compensating for those high costs.  I believe that this is a direct result of the high rents and the housing crisis.

It is good that the university is not only looking at the issue of affordable housing but also food security.  Most students are not spending $1400 to $1800 for food and rent off campus and the fact that they are going to have to live on campus means that many will choose not to do so.

Unless the university can make the cost of living more affordable, their adding additional beds is not going to be a huge help.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Ken A

    David is correct when he says “Most students are not spending $1400 to $1800 for food and rent off-campus” but it is because the cost to rent a room off campus is so much lower than on campus not because “most” are buying (or using their EBT cards to buy) less than $300 worth of food every month.  David and I know different students (I don’t know anyone getting SNAP benefits) but anyone that spends time on campus or downtown knows that LOTS of students seem to like paying top dollar for prepared food at the CoHo or the many restaurants and coffee shops downtown (including the new ones that sell coffee for over $4 a cup).  Back when I was in college I spend under $500 most months for rent “and” food because like most other kids a the time I was paying for school working.  Today most kids have loans for school and “most” college kids today spend like mad since they don’t have any idea how hard it will be to pay off a six figure loan.  Today most college kids live the life of  the “RICH college kids” of 30-40 years ago (when only the super rich kids had, computers, mobile phones, hired cars to go out to bars and even knew what a scone was)…

    1. Keith O

      Ken’s comment is much more on target.  A huge percentage of students are on grants, scholarships, being supported by their parents, etc.  David shows mostly just the smaller percentage of students who look like they had to support themselves.  I put two girls though college, I would often get that call “Dad, I need more money for food or whatever”.  They even asked when they were on the freshmen housing meal plan.  “Dad, I get tired of eating at the cafeteria.”  I think that’s more the norm.

      Also like I asked the other day, isn’t beer considered a food?

        1. Howard P

          C’mon… Keith was pretty clear that it was just tuition and fees…

          As for food, Mom and Dad rationalized that they’d have to spend money to feed me anyway, and they’d ‘gift me’ on the dorm/apartment rent… it was a stretch for them in the 70’s… but I was their only child, and neither of them got to go to college for more than a semester…

          Have you seen the cars a lot of the students are riding around in?  I rode a bike (at the time Unitrans was charging fares, and didn’t feel I could afford it)… I was responsible for books, utilities, and any incidental expenses… no “allowance”… my parents could not afford that.

          Some current students are like I was… but not the majority, by far.  Affordable student and other folk housing is very important… for those who genuinely need it… based on clothes I’ve seen worn, cars driven, devices used, meals and drinks consumed at local restaurants and bars… something I could afford maybe once a month, and reserved that for wooing my lady…

          Many students are “well-funded”… primarily by parents who have family incomes/assets well into the $100 k+/year range…. others are far from that…

          We need to focus on those who (or their parents) can’t do it, or are ‘stressed’ to do it.


    2. Alan Miller

      Today most college kids live the life of  the “RICH college kids” of 30-40 years ago (when only the super rich kids had, computers, mobile phones . . .

      Yeah, those rich college kids from 1983 with their cell phones and computers . . .

      1. Ken A

        In 1983 the rich and even some upper middle class college kids had computers (I got Apple IIe in HS and in college I had an IBM PC clone I built myself with a “daisy wheel” printer) and I knew two super rich kids with mobile phones in 1983 (by 1986 I knew at least a dozen rich college kids with mobile phones).  I didn’t get a mobile phone until well after college when I paid just over $1,800 for a Panasonic “transportable” phone…

        P.S. The UCD kids I hear complaining about the cost of rent and food tend to be the ones who eat out the most often (and have a Macbook Pro and at least an iPhone7)…

  2. John Hobbs

    When I was in college, my tuition was negligible, my share of the rent on a 3br 1 1/2 bth was $65 and we had a communal food budget for three people of about $120/month. Brown rice, Bulgar wheat, celery and spices were our “staples” along with cheap draft beer and free popcorn from the Buffalo Club. (Working nights as a musician and picking up odd handyman jobs, I brought home about $400/ month, so I could afford a Triumph Bonneville, fringed buckskin jacket and more than two pair of wide wale corduroys.)

    I look at the astronomical cost of college and housing today and shudder.

  3. Sharla C.

    Food insecurity is rampant on campus.  The University hands out free fruits and vegetables a couple of times per week and you should see the lines of students waiting.  Students typically skip meals to save money.  As rents rise or commute costs are added, food is often the only item that has flexibility.   Eileen is out of touch with the average student.

    1. Howard P

      Sharla… pretty sure those you describe are a small minority of students… BUT they are a VERY IMPORTANT minority who need UCD’s and the society’s attention…

    2. Ken A

      Even the dumbest kid at UCD knows that they can swing by a happy hour and get free (salty) food and also knows many other places to get free food so “food insecurity” is not “rampant” on campus (like it is for six year old kids in housing projects where many parents use the EBT cards to get cash for drugs).

      What is “rampant” on the UCD campus is the “obesity epidemic” with a HUGE percentage of the kids overweight. 

      [moderator] edited]

    3. Eileen Samitz


      Since UCD is an ag school and there should be some resources like harvested food, I think its great that the campus is sharing that with the students that UCD is gouging for ridiculously high tuition. But hey, UCD need to keep giving those high raises to their plethora of six-figure  administrators, don’t they?

      Frankly, it is you who is out of touch for not even acknowledging how UCD is squandering their financial resources on administration costs at the expense of the resources needed for the students. What about the mental health services scandal now on campus? Why aren’t you complaining about how UCD has failed giving their students the support they need?

      1. Sharla C.

        Eileen, It is difficult to engage in any kind of conversation with you.  You immediately attack and turn it into a criticism of what I haven’t said or what I haven’t done – usually about things that are off topic.  The anger and level of hatred apparent in your messages can’t be healthy for you.  I really considered you a friend – or at least that we are on friendly terms –  and wonder why I am continually such a target for your disdain.

        Since your message was directed at me specifically, I will respond.  The food distribution is actually donated food from Nugget Market and other sources, including what is grown on the student farm.  There are other resources for students, including the free pantry and assistance with signing up for CalFresh.  Emergency funds are available and students in the dorms will often donate unused money on their meal plans for students in need.

        I wonder what the impact that rising rents and scarce housing are having on the economic health of Davis.   The decrease of disposable income by gobbling up by high rents means that there is less money to spend on “luxuries,” including food.   The rents on campus are high – higher than in town – but landlords are raising rents so fast that the gap is closing.  There are 30K students on campus.  I don’t see 30K students flooding the downtown with cash and credit. The downtown is busy, but not busy enough.  Surveys show that a large number of students skimp on food to make ends meet.

        The other issues – administrator salaries, mental health resources I will leave for another time when that is the topic of the Vanguard article.  Also, I don’t think that you brought these topics up as genuine interest points.

        1. Eileen Samitz


          I find it interesting that you tend to post judgmental comments which are aimed at me personally, like claiming that I am “out of touch with the average student”. Then, when I respond to that comment, you suddenly claim to be “attacked”. You have done this on a number of occasions by making a condescending comment towards me (sometimes others) and then when you get a response, you try to retreat to being the victim.

          So let’s just say the way the best way to have a conversation (as you say you want to) is to stick to the issue, rather then trying to make assumptions about the thoughts or experience of others posting.

          Further, the biggest problem of why rents are high in town are simply because UCD has been grossly negligent in providing the needed on-campus affordable student housing for years. Six other UC’s are providing at least 50% on-campus housing, yet UCD , the largest UC in the system with over 5,300 acres continues to trail in the provision of on-campus housing.

          UCD teaches sustainable planning, but yet doesn’t practice it. There is no reason why UCD can’t accomplish what these other UC’s are, particularly since UCD has plenty of land to do so. UCD has not been providing the needed on-campus affordable students housing for years and it needs to step-up now like the other UC’s are.


        2. Moderator

          Eileen: Administrative salaries and the mental health services issue were completely off topic. You criticized Sharla for not addressing those. Sharla is correct that you have been directly critical of her in the past. I would add that your recent tone has been quite abrasive toward David as well. It would be great if everyone could focus on issues and be less combative in our replies.

        3. Tia Will

          I am appalled by the conclusions drawn by some that because they see some students in luxury cars, or some students wearing expensive clothes that only a small minority must be experiencing food insecurity. When I was in medical school here, one of my classmates drove a DeLorean. Another never wore the same set of designer clothes twice. I, in the meantime did not have a car, shared a room, and ate ramen supplemented with eggs and finely chopped fresh vegetables  for the majority of my meals. Extrapolation from what catches your eye to the larger population is not a sound way of assessing student need.

        4. Eileen Samitz


          Wow. So now all of a sudden, the complaints of UCD financial resources being focused on the six-figured UCD administrators is a non-issue? How on earth is that “off topic”? Particularly when even the UCD students have been complaining about this.

          Why are the UCD financial mental health support issue for the students “off topic”? How is this not a “genuine interest point” since it involves UCD financial resources that should have been focused on helping the UCD students in every which way, including the need for on-campus affordable student housing? This is a problem that everyone had been complaining about.

          Why is it that the Vanguard’s “moderation” protects the the “tone” of the Vanguard’s position, but is not even-handed with protecting the “tone” of anyone disagreeing with the Vanguard. Seriously?





  4. Eileen Samitz


    It is interesting that your latest argument is that students do not spend much money on food, yet not long ago you were arguing for how much students were contributing to the tax base by their significant purchases of food and alcohol at the restaurants and bars in town. So, it looks like your arguments flip and flop depending in which “spin” you are working on for the moment.

    That said, I have no doubt that some students are more financially limited than others and face face serious challenges including paying for food. But you make it sound that the entire student body is living on $50 a week, and that is clearly not true.  Thus is evidenced by the very large number of students regularly purchasing food at Starbucks, and other coffee shops (which is not cheap) and all of the restaurants and bars in town.

      1. Keith O

        Eileen hasn’t been proven wrong, if anything you have David.  Sure there are some students only spending $50/week, but not on average.  I’m sure if you look hard enough you can find one living on $20/week.  That doesn’t prove your point.  The average is much higher than $50/week all things considered.

        1. David Greenwald

          She said: “Oh yes, and you believe that students live on $50 a week for food. Right…  So you think anybody is believing this desperate pitch of yours? It is simply absurd.”

          Clearly I showed that many students do in fact live on $50 a week or less in food.  It’s not absurd.  I never said it was the average.  In fact, the original range I gave was $400 to $600 and said more like half that, which I think is largely correct.  Most students are living on half that from what I could tell.  So yes, I did prove her wrong and she clearly shifted the debate rather than engaging.

    1. Tia Will


      So, it looks like your arguments flip and flop depending in which “spin” you are working on for the moment.”
      I don’t read it that way. It is important to acknowledge that both the extremely wealthy and the extremely poor may be co existing on campus at the same time and that David may not be “spinning” as much as discussing different groups at different times. 

      I do agree with a portion of a previous post by you that it is best to address the issues from our own perspectives, rather than second guessing what someone else’s beliefs or motivations may be.


    1. Keith O

      Don, that chart doesn’t account for eating at restaurants, fast food establishments, bars, ice cream shops, etc.

      You know as well as I that a person spending $20-$30 at a restaurant or bar isn’t that hard to reach.

      I took my wife and daughter out to lunch in San Jose the other day, we had salads, a pizza, a few beers and all of a sudden the bill came to $85 with tip.

        1. Keith O

          Anecdotes?  So you don’t think students eat out and frequent the bars?

          From your study:

          Another basis of the Food Plans is that all meals and snacks are prepared at home.

          Is that also an anecdote?

        2. Keith O

          Howard, how is my response any different than what Don fed me?

          You’re not even part of this conversation but you still feel the need to insert yourself.

          You just can’t help yourself can you?

    2. Don Shor

      The UC Food Security and Access Study found that 19% of UC student respondents had very low food
      security, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines as experiencing reduced food intake at times
      due to limited resources. Another 23% of survey respondents were considered to have low food security,
      defined as reports of reduced quality, variety or desirability of diet, with little or no indication of reduced
      food intake. Using the USDA’s definition of food insecurity, which combines low and very low food
      security, a combined 42% of students UC systemwide reported having experienced a reduced quality of
      diet or reduced food intake in the past 12 months

      1. Ken A

        With American’s now spending more eating out than eating at home a survey that does not track spending on food outside the home is not very good:

        I’m sure that Don knows that any survey that just takes information from people who happen to respond is also not very good.

        P.S. I recently read a survey that reported that the people who responded run an average of 56 miles a week (about twice as much as I run a week and probably 100x more than the “average American” runs every week)…



  5. John Hobbs

    “I took my wife and daughter out to lunch in San Jose the other day, we had salads, a pizza, a few beers and all of a sudden the bill came to $85 with tip.”

    You must be a great tipper. I take my jazz trio out for pizza and beer at Round Table pretty often and the other two are not light drinkers, never spend more than $60 (usually more like $50 with a 20% tip)on the meal.

  6. John Hobbs

    ” a couple pitchers of beer…”

    Just two? Still makes for a heck of a tip. Now three pitchers and I’d have to wonder who’s driving and how many glasses they had.

    1. Howard P

      John… depending on weight, even two pitchers between 3 people, sure would make me wonder the same thing… unless one or two of them had the proverbial ‘wooden leg’, and/or a really fast metabolic rate…

    1. Howard P

      48 oz X 2, divided by three is 32 oz… @ 5% alcohol, that is 1.6 oz of alcohol… assuming all 3 had the same quantity…

      Refer to the chart provided by Ken A… depends on weight, time of consumption, ‘tolerance’…

      I often see a CHP sign saying “buzzed driving is DUI”… [depending on behavior]

      Yeah, no problem there… I was completely “out of line” … mea culpa. My apologies to all… particularly, Ken A…

      1. Howard P

        Let’s remember the topic though… yeah, I participated in the ‘drift’, but calories are calories… however “empty”…

        One thing that seems to be lacking at elementary, HS, and college levels is nutrition… should be a “core” subject… would help to prevent obesity, and other bad outcomes…

        You can get nutrition relatively cheaply… or, you can spend a lot and have lousy nutrition,,,

  7. Sean Raycraft

    I work at a grocery store here in town. Not a day goes by that I ring up students on SNAP benefits. I also every day ring up students from wealthy families dropping hundreds of dollars on expensive champenge. One foreign student dropped 500 bucks on Valentines day on pink roses alone, another 200 on a bottle of Dom. Its possible that students contribute to the tax base and are mal nourished. They arent some monolithic thing.

        1. Sean Raycraft

          South davis safeway. We actually carry a lot of high end liquor and wine. If you buy 6 bottles, we beat the prices for practically everyone. But yeah, the children of foreign oligarchs at UCD are a thing, but they definitely don’t reflect the average Aggie whatsoever

  8. Jeff M

    My perspective is that UCD students are being bifurcated into two economic groups due to the economic circumstances resulting from primarily tuition and housing costs that have increased way beyond the rate of inflation for decades.  One has enough resources to live comfortably and the other does not.

    My perspective is that the “have not” cohort is much larger than we observe because they are living off a large and growing student debt liability.

    And for the “have” cohort many of those kids are made comfortable from parents’ savings that should otherwise be held for parents retirement funds.

    It is ludicrous to oppose student housing development on the argument that students have enough money to live well.  The huge increase in student debt is a looming bubble of economic catastrophe.  Americans are not saving enough for retirement… and spending on higher learning is contributing to that problem.

    Affordable housing for students is a social justice cause worth pursuing.

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