Many college students may think that occasional couch-surfing and having to live on ramen noodles and bananas while in school is a fact of college life, but the reality is that these cost-cutting practices could be signs of food and housing insecurity.
In a January 2018 study, researchers Rashida Crutchfield and Jennifer Maguire found that 41.6 percent of students in the California State University system experience some form of food insecurity and 10.9 percent experienced homelessness one or more times in last 12 months.
CSU Chancellor Timothy P. White decided to not raise tuition next year, but the cost of living in California continues to rise.
“In order to close this price gap, students are cutting costs of their basic needs such as food and housing,” Crutchfield and Maguire wrote. “College students with limited resources are also skipping meals to make ends meet.”
The study described food security on two levels: low and very low.
Low means that there is a reduced quality of the diet but there is little reduced food intake.
Students in this bracket may be able to afford food, albeit of a lower quality, so they may feel like their needs are not high enough to qualify them as food insecure, in comparison to those who have very low food security, so they often feel guilty about taking resources.
Very low food security, as defined in the study, means “reports of multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.”
The study, now in its second phase, was commissioned by the CSU Basic Needs Initiative, which seeks to “tackle barriers to student success, including food and housing insecurity” and concluded that in order for students to succeed, basic needs must be met.
They also found that facing food and housing insecurity negatively impacted students’ academic success, health, and mental health.
Students who experienced this also reported more inactive days, where poor health was a factor in not being able to do one’s daily activities successfully.
Sara Gamez, associate director for student support and equity programs, said this also happens at Cal Poly Pomona.
“If a student is hungry and going to class, it’s very difficult to focus, study and do well academically,” Gamez said. “We also know that it’s challenging for a student to do well in school if they don’t even know where they’re going to sleep at night.”
In response to these studies, the first of which was conducted in 2016, CPP created a Food and Housing Security Committee that aims to support students in these situations.
“There is more of an awareness that college students do struggle with food and housing insecurity. I think before it was almost an assumption that if you were a college student that was the norm,” Gamez said. “[Everyone thinks that] you should be eating ramen noodles and that’s the college-going environment. Well, that shouldn’t be the norm. Nobody should feel like that’s the only option that they have.”
Based on data from Fall 2015, Gamez said around 80% of new students at CPP were coming from schools that had a high rate of socioeconomic struggle.
She said adding things such as tuition, books and fees exacerbated the situation.
“Just because they got admitted to Cal Poly doesn’t mean that they are no longer food insecure. If students and families were struggling then, it doesn’t change because the student got into the university,” she said.
CPP’s Mobile Food Pantry, in conjunction with local nonprofit Sowing Seeds for Life, brings nonperishable food items as well as other items including toiletries, diapers and feminine hygiene products for approximately 400 students every fourth Tuesday of the month.
Gamez said the campus is also working with ASI on opening a physical food pantry in the Fall that will be able to provide sustenance for students on a more long-term basis.
At the moment, Gamez said CPP provides referrals to local food pantries that service throughout the month.
CalFresh representatives are on hand at every mobile food pantry to promote the program, which is able to provide money for food to those who qualify.
The study also found that students with housing insecurity may not feel comfortable seeking help because of the stigma associated with being homeless.
A definition of homelessness for the study came from both the Department of Education and U.S. Housing and Development.
It refers to those who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence and/or are living in places not meant for human habitations, such as cars, parks, sidewalks, and abandoned buildings or in an emergency shelter or transitional housing.
Gamez said CPP is also working with the county to provide referrals for housing and shelters.
She also said the campus is in the process of hiring a case manager to work directly with students who are in need but for now, students should contact Gamez directly if they face food or housing insecurity.
“They can reach out to me and then I’ll connect them to whatever resources they may need based on their specific situation,” she said.
A variety of other strategies to deal with food and housing insecurity are being considered, such as meal sharing, emergency meal cards, hotel vouchers and partnering with local shelters and the LA Homeless Housing Authority.
Gamez also said CPP is working on expanding the network of places on campus that accept EBT because the only ones that do are the Farm Store and the Vista Marketplace near the suites.
“Students should know that they can definitely reach out if they do have a need and they shouldn’t feel ashamed of feeling like they’re struggling with food insecurity or housing instability,” Gamez said.
“We’re here to help.”
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