Food Insecurity Is a Real Issue for College Students – and Not Just at UC Davis

When officials looked at Yolo County’s participation rate in CalFresh – the food assistance program known generically and more common as food stamps – one thing clearly stood out. In a state that ranks last in the nation in SNAP participation, Yolo County consistently ranks in the bottom five in the state and the reason is clear – UC Davis students are eligible for benefits but not accessing them.

UC Davis is not exceptional in that respect – but it stands out because of the high proportion of the Yolo County population UC Davis represents.

The reaction has been, as pointed in this week’s Atlantic: “As the costs of college have climbed, some students have gone hungry. When they’ve voiced frustration, they’ve often been ridiculed: ‘Ramen is cheap,’ or ‘Just eat cereal.’”

That is a notion disputed by many familiar with food insecurity problems and it is also pointed out in our a new report from the GAO (Government Accountability Office) which finds that there are millions of students at risk of being food insecure.

The report finds that “having a low income is the most common risk factor for food insecurity among college students. Among low-income students, most have one additional risk factor associated with food insecurity, such as being a first-generation student or a single parent.”

Federal data shows that most low-income students have multiple risk factors associated with food insecurity.  While there no nationally representative data on food insecurity, the risk factors the report identified include, among others: low-income, housing issues, demographic characteristics and other stressors.

“Nationally representative survey data that would support direct estimates of the prevalence of food insecurity among college students do not currently exist,” the report warns. 

In order to determine how many students then fall into this category, the GAO reviewed 31 studies conducted since 2007, which they found to find a range of 9 percent to well over 50 percent.

However, 22 of the 31 studies estimated food insecurity rates of 30 percent.

The report concludes, “The federal government invests billions of dollars annually in higher education through grants and loans to low-income students. Partially as a result of this investment, a college education is accessible to more low-income Americans than ever before.”

However, “Despite this federal support, many low-income college students struggle to meet their basic needs, including obtaining the food that they need.”

The result is that many students may drop out of college as a result.

While SNAP and, in California, CalFresh, “can be an important source of support for low-income students” however, “because the SNAP eligibility requirements for college students can be difficult for students and colleges to understand, students may be unaware of or misinformed about their potential eligibility for SNAP.”

Like UC Davis, there is a problem with low participation.  The report finds that “almost 2 million at-risk students who were potentially eligible for SNAP did not report receiving benefits in 2016.”

One problem is that students do not know they are eligible.  Another problem, as Nolan Sullivan told the Vanguard in its report earlier this past week, is it is difficult to apply for the program.

The Vanguard will visit Aggie Compass later this week, but, as we reported earlier, UC Davis and the county have taken steps to put full-time eligibility workers in the community, and particularly on campus.  Recently Yolo County re-opened the administration building on A Street in Davis and, for the first time, there is full time access for Davis residents to services without having to drive to Woodland.

“We had to find a way in,” Supervisor Don Saylor explained.  “We had to find a way to access the students.”

But UC Davis is not alone.  The Vanguard was told that each student eligible for Work Study is eligible for CalFresh.

The Atlantic reports that “students who meet the basic criteria for SNAP eligibility and are younger than 18 or older than 50, or who have children, or who work a minimum of 20 hours a week are also eligible to receive the benefit.”

But the problem goes beyond that.  The Atlantic talked with Temple University Professor Sara Goldrick-Rab, a recognized scholar on campus hunger.  She pointed out that food pantries only scratch the surface of the issue.

“When there’s a food pantry, there’s somebody who is acknowledging the problem,” she said.  The problem of food insecurity goes beyond just low-income students who are eligible for SNAP or CalFresh.

The students most vulnerable might be middle-class students.  Those students who are “too rich for Pell and too poor to afford college,” and are unlikely to use things like a food pantry.

Senator Patti Murray said that we have to look beyond just tuition costs to deal with “all of the costs that come to a student as they try to complete college, including food and housing.”

The report, for example, cites a community college official who told them: “We have come to realize that we can’t address retention and completion without addressing students’ basic needs.”

Here is one of the problems that the report cites – even the remedy is causing a problem.  The report notes: “Several higher education officials and one researcher noted that when a student qualifies for a student exemption by working 20 hours a week, it can have a detrimental impact on college completion.”

They cite research that shows “full-time college students who work more than 15 hours a week or who reduce their college course load and attend part time in order to increase their work hours are less likely to complete their degree or educational program.”

As Professor Goldrick-Rab put it, “that food insecurity is a college-completion issue.”  She said, “We’re undermining our federal investment in financial aid by not paying attention to this. We have to stop pretending like living expenses are not educational expenses.”

—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. Craig Ross

    The GAO puts food insecurity levels in the 30 percent range and find that it’s impacting completion rate.  I’m glad to see this.  I think people need to understand that there is a critical mass of students who do not have their parents money to fall back on their choice is an education or getting full time work and putting off college.  A lot of us are sucking it up to get our college while we are young.  But it’s hard.

    1. Matt Williams

      Craig, I agree with you that there is a critical mass who do not have their parents money to fall back on, and that in the current system their choice is an education or getting full time work and putting off college.  What proportion of the 30% reported by the GAO do you feel falls in that category?

      1. Craig Ross

        A lot, most, all?  I don’t have data.  But you have to think someone wouldn’t be food insecure if their parents could loan them a twenty (a lot of students survive on less than that each week).

        1. Matt Williams

          I think you are making your statement “someone wouldn’t be food insecure if their parents could loan them a twenty” with your gut/heart rather than your head. 

          Think of all the times since you were a Junior in high school when you chose not to ask your parents to help you. The desire to be independent of oune’s parents is the major theme of the passage from adolescence to young adulthood.  The years from 17 through 25 are the most inefficient and (often) ineffective years of a human being’s life.

          So, my answer to you is that I believe that 2/3 of the 30% have fiscal resources that they are not availing themselves of and 1/3 come from actual low income backgrounds.  As a society, we need to work hard to help the 10% (1/3 of 30%) escape/avoid food insecurity.

        2. Craig Ross

          Have you ever been so poor Matt, that you couldn’t afford milk for your cereal?

          If you read the article, it notes that middle class students are also struggling because they have to pay for tuition without qualifying for services.

        3. Matt Williams

          Craig, you are missing the point.  If a student comes from an actual low income background then they absolutely should be given the help needed to maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of their educational endeavors.

          Whether or not a student has or does not have milk for their cereal is not a meaningful measurement.  One has to ask “Why?” there was no milk for their cereal.  What were the students expenditures that used the milk money? 

          Being a student is a “job,” and the idea of redirecting food budget money to other non-academic pursuits (for example the monthly costs of a car and car insurance) are an anathema to a large portion of the students who are at risk of not having enough money for milk.  Most parents of college students with limited fiscal resources feel much the same about their child’s “job.”.  Success in college is the product of focus and discipline … and mastery of those two traits in the gauntlet of college is a significant predictor of success in life.

          Regarding your middle class comment, I firmly believe that many, many of the food insecurity situations in that demographic are examples of a shortage of focus and discipline in both the student’s and the parents’ approach to the “job.”  The middle class situation you have described is a problem that can be solved by better and consistent communication between parents and child, as well as better budgeting of both money and time.

  2. Matt Williams

    David, the question I have asked many times about UCD student food insecurity also applies to college student food insecurity nationwide.  Is student food insecurity (for the most part) by choice rather than by chance.

    To focus the discussion of that question a bit, what is your estimate David of the percentages of college students that fall into the following three categories? (1) students not experiencing food insecurity, (2) students experiencing food insecurity who have access to the fiscal resources needed to no longer be food insecure, and (3) students experiencing food insecurity who do not have access to the fiscal resources needed to no longer be food insecure.

    From your article the sum of category (2) and category (3) is approximately 30% (see “However, 22 of the 31 studies estimated food insecurity rates of 30 percent”).  

    I believe the reason that question is meaningful is that any solution to food insecurity should focus on the students in category (3).  They are the ones who really need help … and can fiscally demonstrate that they need the help.

    As I have said numerous times before, the best place to be addressing the needs of category (3) students is through programs provided by the university/college they are attending.  As I said to Kristine Gaul, “wouldn’t it be even better if the University actually addressed its student food insecurity challenges by making CalFresh membership a part of the financial aid packages that are awarded to students coming from actual low income backgrounds?”  I believe Bernie Sanders would be a strong supporter of such a solution.  

    The students in category (2) are faced with a learning opportunity … a part of the maturing experience that attending college is purported to be.  they can practice a bit of self discipline, communicate with their parents, realistically budget their money and time to maximize the value of their college education, and very quickly leave category (2) and join the ranks of category (1).  The choice is theirs to make.

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