A study has found that 59 percent of students at Western Oregon University have faced food insecurity at some point in 2013, raising questions of the general financial stability of college students and its impacts on academic achievement.
Food insecurity occurs when there is uncertainty or the lack of access to adequate, safe and nutritional food. The report, which published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior in January, states it is a measure of economic hardship and financial stability of a household.
This particular study is one of few out there on hunger in the college demographic. One of the authors, Oregon State University professor Daniel Lopez-Cevallos, said there’s a need for further study and that the financial stability of students should be part of statewide education policy discussions.
Sure, there is a caveat here. WOU has a high concentration of first-generation college students as well as Latino students, so the findings might not apply generally across America’s college population.
However, other studies do indicate that food insecurity is more prevalent among college students than other groups. A Hawaii study found that 45 percent of students were food insecure and another study in Australia found that almost 72 percent of students were food insecure. The WOU study is the first of its kind in the continental United States or in a rural area.
Lopez-Cevallos said a bigger proportion of college students are more food insecure than single mothers, also a vulnerable group.
Outside of the study, more evidence of rising needs among college students is the number of food pantries opening on college campuses. According to the College and University Food Bank Alliance, Oregon State University, Portland State University and Southwestern Oregon Community College run food pantries. WOU also has a food pantry.
Lopez-Cevallos said with the 2008 housing crisis and rising college tuition, students are having an increasingly difficult time making ends meet. More of their families also lack the adequate resources to support the students. So when it comes to wiggle room in their budgets, food expenses tend to be the first to be jeopardized.
“Food is one of the few areas they have flexibility to reduce,” he said. “Tuition you cannot reduce because it’s dictated by the universities. Housing is dictated by rental agencies.”
In the big picture, food insecurity among college students could mean lower academic achievement, which in turn could lead to an inability to rise out of poverty.
It long has been established that food insecurity among students in primary and secondary schools has an impact on academic achievement, Lopez- Cevallos said. That’s why public schools today have free and reduced school lunches and breakfast.
These struggles continue for college students coming from low-income households. Preparing a well-trained workforce requires a closer look at how college students could be better supported, he said.
Mike Royer, a WOU senior who runs the “Hungry like a Wolf” food pantry, said he was surprised to hear the results of the study. He thought that if indeed almost 60 percent of WOU’s students had experienced food insecurity in the past year, they must hide it well.
The food pantry has been open since 2011, but it’s a small operation that has little support or visibility. It shares space with the staff break room and its main source of food is a delivery from Marion-Polk Food Share once a week.
Royer said more promotion is needed to collect more donations, but the pantry would not be able to meet the increase in demands that may come with more publicity.
In January, the pantry served 45 people — and it probably couldn’t do much more than that.
Royer was working to partner with the athletics program to solicit canned food donations at basketball games. He said he hopes the study will encourage people to give to the pantry.
Lopez-Cevallos said while pantries are one tool to address hunger on college campuses, he would like to see the education system incorporate support to address the financial instability of students.
The key is to help students focus on learning and their careers so they have a shot at financial stability, he said.
“I’ve had students who come in and out,” Lopez-Cevallos said. “They drop a term because they can’t afford it and don’t want to take on debt.
“And the risk is they won’t come back.”
syoo@StatesmanJournal.com, (503) 399-6673 or follow at Twitter.com/syoo
To read the full study, see this story at StatesmanJournal.com/news.