College Hunger Visibility: Opportunities for Permanent Change in the 2023 Farm Bill

Siobhan O’Keefe
August 15, 2023

It’s August, and for many college students, anticipation for a new academic year is beginning to grow. Long days of class and late nights spent studying will once again become familiar, but there’s another mental burden faced by far too many college students that shouldn’t be part of the equation: chronic hunger. 

Food insecurity, or the lack of consistent, accessible, and adequate food, impacts an alarming number of college students- at a rate far higher than across all U.S. households. Furthermore, the rates of food insecurity experienced by first-generation students, students of color and community college/two-year college students are even more shocking. Continuing to let college students go hungry will not only hurt their academic performance and overall health, but also puts students at risk for experiencing long-term food insecurity (Leung et al., 2021). Critical changes must be made to food assistance policies to mitigate the prevalence and consequences of college hunger. 

With the Farm Bill set to be reauthorized this fall, anti-hunger advocates are pushing for key changes to SNAP that will reduce college hunger. Without significant changes, outdated and restrictive SNAP policies will continue to put college students at risk of food insecurity. For years, MAZON  has worked to elevate the problem of college hunger,  committing to broadening SNAP access and equity.

Food insecurity can have negative and chronic effects on physical, as well as mental health outcomes. According to evidence-based research, there is a significant impact of food insecurity on the concentration abilities, academic performance, and overall mental health of college students. Students experiencing food insecurity are more likely to neglect academic responsibilities and reduce their course loads. Food insecure college students face higher dropout rates (3.49 times higher) and achieve statistically lower (0.17) GPA averages than students who are food secure (Tin et al., 2022)

Although exact rates of food insecurity among college students are difficult to pinpoint, there is a growing body of research that consistently finds food insecurity is prevalent among college students, ranging from 10% to 75% (Nikolaus et al., 2022). Community college students in particular experience higher rates of food insecurity than four-year college students. A report by the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice found that 39% of students at two-year institutions faced food insecurity during 2020 (and 29% of students at 4-year institutions). The Hope Center report also indicated higher rates of food and basic needs insecurity among students of color. 

While food pantries on college campuses are becoming more common, this is not always a viable option, and it signals a broader systemic problem. College students shouldn’t have to wonder whether they can rely on a food pantry to provide them with consistent access to adequate nutrition. Oftentimes, food pantries lack culturally appropriate foods that encompass all student needs. Countless students sacrifice having enough to eat in order to pay for books, rent, and other necessities, or to cover as much tuition costs as possible to avoid an abominable student debt payment. Attaining a higher education or having food to eat shouldn’t be a choice students have to make. 

Despite the high prevalence of food insecurity reported among college students, federal nutrition assistance is not always available. Students enrolled more than half-time in a higher education institution (such as a college, university, or community college) are ineligible for SNAP unless they meet an exemption. Exemptions for college students to become eligible for SNAP include those who work 20 hours/week. 

Other exemptions for college students include participation in a federal work study or caring for a child under the age of 6, or a child under age 12 if enrolled in school full-time. Working 20 hours per week is not often a viable option for students trying to also maintain academic rigor and success. Achieving a college education can often equate to, if not exceed, a full-time job. There are numerous other unique circumstances that deem college students ineligible for SNAP under current eligibility requirements, leaving them hungry and unable to focus on, or even complete, their education. Current SNAP eligibility requirements are keeping hungry students off of the program, hurting their academic performance and overall health. 

During COVID-19, some barriers to SNAP eligibility were reduced for college students. Congress temporarily expanded SNAP eligibility to support students who were eligible for federal work study, as well as to students who did not receive family support. Although an estimated 3 million students were able to receive SNAP during this time, the U.S. government  is now phasing out these exemptions. 

Advocates and students alike are fearfully bracing for the consequences of the end of this exemption policy, as millions of students still suffer from the economic repercussions of COVID-19 — not to mention the rising cost of attaining a higher education. 

The 2023 Farm Bill presents an opportunity for expanding SNAP access to better support college students. 

Legislation such as the Opportunity to Address College Hunger Act would reduce SNAP’s administrative burden by requiring colleges to inform students who hold federal work study positions if they qualify for SNAP. Better public awareness of eligibility will help reduce the difference between students actually eligible for SNAP and those who are enrolled. Other legislation such as the Enhance Access to SNAP (EATS) Act of 2023 could permanently reduce SNAP eligibility barriers for college students. MAZON continues to spearhead efforts to reduce college hunger at both federal and state levels.

Students pursuing a higher education have enough to stress about — they shouldn’t have to worry about having enough to eat. With the 2023 Farm Bill authorization quickly approaching, we must push for permanent change in food assistance policies across the country to ensure that college students — regardless of background or circumstance — have equitable opportunities to succeed in the classroom and beyond. 

Join MAZON in urging Congress to support college students facing hunger.