In-Depth: Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) introduced this bill to address food insecurity on college campuses by allowing more low-income college students to access the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and pushing the federal government, states, and colleges and universities to take a more proactive role in addressing student food insecurity:
"As more and more students struggle to afford college and take on a mountain of student loan debt, nearly one-in-three college students cannot even afford basic necessities like food. Our bill will ensure students have the support they need to work toward a better future without going hungry."
Rep. Al Lawson (D-AL), who is sponsoring this bill’s House companion, says:
“Food insecurity is a real concern for many college students across our nation. The significant increase in college tuition over the last decade has forced students to make a choice between buying food or paying for books and housing expenditures. This bill will help to relieve some of that financial burden for them. I am proud to work with Sen. Warren to introduce this critical piece of legislation.”
The American Council on Education (ACE) supports this bill. In a letter to Sen. Warren and Rep. Lawson, ACE President Ted Mitchell wrote:
“On behalf of the higher education associations listed below, I write in strong support of S. 2143/H.R. 3809, the College Student Hunger Act of 2019. We thank you for introducing this important legislation, which will provide needed tools and resources aimed at ensuring that students will not go hungry as they pursue higher education. There has been a growing awareness in recent years about the serious problem of hunger and food insecurity on campus. Colleges and universities have engaged in a number of efforts to try and address this issue… The problem of food insecurity is a real one–and one that takes a serious toll on the health, emotional, and educational well-being of affected students every day… The College Student Hunger Act would remove barriers that prevent low-income students from accessing SNAP benefits.”
While the Government Accountability Office (GAO) identified SNAP as a way to address college student hunger in a December 2018 report, it didn’t recommend expanding SNAP benefits at the federal level. Instead, the GAO report made two recommendations focused on optimizing the existing SNAP program’s operation and information-sharing:
- That the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) Administrator should make information on SNAP eligibility requirements easier to understand and access on the FNS website in order to serve as a resource for colleges and state SNAP agencies; and
- That the FNS Administrator should coordinate with regional offices to collect and review information about existing SNAP flexibilities and examples of approaches state SNAP agencies are taking to assist eligible college students with accessing SNAP benefits, and then share that information with state SNAP agencies.
Conservative critics of research on campus food insecurity, who oppose interventions to assist college students with their nutritional needs, argue that there isn’t enough data to properly describe the problem. They argue that the lack of a definitive, nationally-representative sample invalidates current work in the field, that survey response rates are too low, that definitions of “insecurity” vary too much from study to study and that the studies aren’t optimally designed. For more on this, see the Of Note section of this summary — multiple conservative critics have targeted one report on student food insecurity, the #RealCollege survey, in particular.
This legislation has two Democratic Senate cosponsors. Its House version, sponsored by Rep. Al Lawson (D-FL), has 24 Democratic House cosponsors. Both bills have yet to receive a committee vote.
Of Note: In February 2017, Sen. Warren led a letter with Sens. Ed Markey (D-MA), Patty Murray (D-WA) and Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) requesting a Government Accountability Office (GAO) study on food insecurity at colleges and universities.
In its resulting report, released in December 2018, the GAO reports that over 30% of college students may face food insecurity. Similarly, in a 2017 study of 43,000 students, the Wisconsin HOPE Lab found that 36% of university students and 42% of community college students were affected by food insecurity.
In the fall 2018 #RealCollege survey by Temple University’s Hope Center for College, Community and Justice, the results of which were published in April 2019, researchers surveyed students at 123 two- and four-year institutions (90 two-year colleges and 33 four-year colleges from 24 states) across the United States. They found that basic needs insecurity rates were higher for certain groups of students:
- Two-year college students;
- Marginalized students, including African-Americans, LGBTQ students, and students who are financially independent from their parents or guardians;
- Students who have served in the military;
- Former foster youth; and
- Students who were formerly convicted of a crime.
Of the nearly 86,000 college student respondents in the Hope Center survey, approximately 48% of students in two-year institutions had experienced food insecurity in the 30 days preceding the survey and approximately 41% of students in four-year institutions had experienced food insecurity over the same period. Additionally, more than half of respondents from two-year institutions and 44% of students from four-year institutions worried about running out of food. Across the board, nearly half of students couldn’t afford to eat balanced meals.
Robert Verbruggen, deputy managing editor of the National Review, criticized the #RealCollege survey after the New York Times produced what he called an “uncritical write-up.” He argued that the survey was flawed in multiple ways:
“The first important thing to know is that, as the survey itself notes, only in its ‘extreme’ variations is ‘food insecurity’ often accompanied by ‘physiological sensations of hunger.’ For instance, a student could be classified as ‘food insecure’ if he said he worried whether his food would run out, ‘couldn’t afford to eat balanced meals,’ and ate a bit less ‘because there wasn’t enough money for food.’... Next: This survey had a very low response rate [of 5.8%], meaning that the people who answered it are almost certainly not representative of the general population.”
Verbruggen also argued that the email ad for the survey, which participating institutions were required to use word-for-word, carried “a significant risk of skewing the sample toward poorer, struggling students” due to its language. Citing an April 2016 academic paper which found that current studies of food insecurity on college campuses use “not ideal” methodologies, Verbruggen also argued that research yielding the lowest estimates of food insecurity (such as a 2017 Urban Institute report finding food insecurity levels of 11.2-13.5% among college students in 2015), are the most credible.
In a USA TODAY op-ed, James Bovard, author of Attention Deficit Democracy, also criticized the #RealCollege survey and argued that obesity — not starvation — is the real issue on college campuses:
“Rather than being perpetually famished, 70% of college students gain weight during their undergrad years. And few students are svelte when they arrived on campus: High school students were 30 times more likely to be overweight than underweight, according to a study published in Obesity Research. It was only seven years ago that USA TODAY heralded a new campaign: ‘Fighting the obesity epidemic on college campuses.’.. [A]national goal of “no college kid hungry” would bloat more students at a time when obesity wreaks more havoc than a few missed meals.”
Bovard also argued that college students’ course and work loads can accommodate working to earn money for food on their own and criticized the idea of federal assistance as a substitute for working for grocery money:
“The Post noted in 2012 that ‘the typical student today spends 27 hours a week in study and class time, roughly the same time commitment expected of students in a modern full-day kindergarten.’ But expecting students to use free time to get a job to feed themselves is beyond the pale. Instead, the only viable solution is a new federal assistance program. A Post article on the Temple/HOPE study noted that ‘advocates have called on the federal government to provide free or reduced-cost meals at colleges, as is already done in primary and secondary schools.’ So politicians should treat adults like helpless children, no matter how old they become or how much aid they already receive?... In the long run, obliterating individuals’ responsibility for feeding themselves is the worst possible dietary outcome.”
The Hope Center report found that while campus food pantries are becoming more commonplace, use of other supports, such as SNAP, to promote food insecurity are underutilized. In its report, it cited a GAO finding that 57% of students at risk of food insecurity and eligible for SNAP didn’t collect those benefits.
SNAP — the main federal food program addressing food insecurity for low-income Americans — could cover up to two million at-risk students who are potentially eligible for it but who didn’t receive benefits in 2016. Additionally, current restrictions on SNAP eligibility (for example, college students who are enrolled part-time or more currently can’t receive SNAP benefits) make many college students ineligible for benefits.
In an effort to address students’ food insecurity, more than 656 colleges and universities have or are in the process of developing on-campus food pantries. However, Sara Goldrick-Rab, founder of the Hope Center, says that these pantries only scratch the surface of the college hunger issue. She says, “When there’s a food pantry, there’s somebody who is acknowledge the problem” but more systemic responses to college student hunger are still needed. Abby J. Leibman, president and CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, concurs and argues SNAP expansion is the single best solution to college student hunger:
“While hundreds of food pantries have sprung up on campuses in recent years to provide temporary assistance to hungry students, federal food benefits, particularly SNAP, remain the most effective and efficient response to hunger among college students.”
In recent years, efforts to address food insecurity at colleges and universities have expanded beyond food banks to include redistributing leftover food from dining halls and catered events, making students eligible for food stamps and other benefits, and changing national and state education funding to cover living expenses, not just tuition. Goldrick-Rab told the New York Times that this reflects the national hunger movement’s move beyond food banks to focusing on prevention.
Goldrick-Rab explained why cutting SNAP’s work hours requirement from 20 to 10 hours a week is significant for college students. She noted that currently, the work requirement can often cause students to drop out of college because they struggle to balance work with classes and homework:
“Students are not saying we are unwilling to work, they’re already working. It’s about finding enough work to get 20 hours a week, and make your class schedule work. I’m seeing people trying to do two jobs and that comes with two employers, plus commuting times and it tends to drive people out of college.”
Due to this dynamic, Goldrick-Rab argues that “[f]ood insecurity is a college-completion issue.” She adds that it undermines the federal investment in financial aid.
Summary by Lorelei Yang(Photo Credit: iStockphoto.com / Vladimir Vladimirov)