Study identifies high level of 'food insecurity' among college students

January 27, 2014
Oregon State University has set up a "Food Pantry" program that disburses community-donated food to assist students who have inadequate food supplies. Credit: Larry Pribyl, courtesy Oregon State University

One of the few studies of its type has found that a startling 59 percent of college students at one Oregon university were "food insecure" at some point during the previous year, with possible implications for academic success, physical and emotional health and other issues.

Contrary to concerns about obesity and some students packing on "the freshman 15" in weight gain, another reality is that many students are not getting enough to eat as they struggle with high costs, limited income, and fewer food or social support systems than are available to other groups.

The findings were published recently in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, by researchers from Oregon State University, the Benton County Health Department, and Western Oregon University. Students at Western Oregon were surveyed as the basis for the study.

"Based on other research that's been done, we expected some amount of food concerns among college students," said Daniel López-Cevallos, associate director of research at OSU's Center for Latino/a Studies and Engagement. "But it was shocking to find food insecurity of this severity. Several recent trends may be combining to cause this."

The researchers said a combination of rising college costs, more low-income and first-generation students attending college, and changing demographic trends are making this issue more significant than it may have been in the past.

"For past generations, students living on a lean budget might have just considered it part of the college experience, a transitory thing," said Megan Patton-López, lead author of the study with Oregon's Benton County Health Department.

"But rising costs of education are now affecting more people," she said. "And for many of these students who are coming from low-income families and attending college for the first time, this may be a continuation of food insecurity they've known before. It becomes a way of life, and they don't have as many resources to help them out."

Most college students, with some exceptions, are not eligible for food stamps and many are often already carrying heavy debt loads. And the study found that even though many of them work one or more jobs, the financial demands are such that they still may not have enough money for healthy food at all times.

Food insecurity is defined as limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods, and the ability to acquire such food in acceptable ways. It has been associated with depression, stress, trouble learning in the classroom, and poor health. When similar issues have been addressed with elementary school students, improvements were seen in academic performance, behavior and retention of knowledge.

But these problems have received scarcely any attention in the 19-24 year old, young-adult demographic that predominates in college, the scientists said.

Among the findings of this study:

  • While about 14.9 percent of all households in the nation report food insecurity, the number of voicing similar concerns in this report was almost four times higher, at 59 percent.
  • In the past three decades the cost of higher education has steadily outpaced inflation, the cost of living and medical expenses.
  • Food insecurity during college years could affect cognitive, academic and psychosocial development.
  • Factors correlated with reports of food insecurity include fair to , a lower grade point average, low income and employment.

Employment, by itself, is not adequate to resolve this problem, the researchers found. Students reporting also worked an average of 18 hours a week – some as high as 42 – but the financial demands they faced more than offset that income.

These findings were based on a survey of 354 students at Western Oregon University, a mid-size public university in a small town near the state capitol in Salem, Ore. Students at Western Oregon supported and assisted in this research, and Doris Cancel-Tirado and Leticia Vazquez with Western Oregon co-authored the study.

The findings probably reflect similar concerns at colleges and universities across the nation, the researchers said, although more research is needed in many areas to determine the full scope of this problem.

"One thing that's clear is that colleges and universities need to be having this conversation and learning more about the issues their may be facing," said López-Cevallos. "There may be steps to take locally that could help, and policies that could be considered nationally. But it does appear this is a very serious issue that has not received adequate attention, and we need to explore it further."

Explore further: Most students exposed to school-based food commercialism

More information: ir.library.oregonstate.edu/xmlui/handle/1957/45177

Related Stories

Most students exposed to school-based food commercialism

January 13, 2014
Most students in elementary, middle and high schools are exposed to food commercialism (including exclusive beverage contracts and the associated incentives, profits and advertising) at school, although there has been a decrease ...

New research gives answers on the relationship between chronic illness and food insecurity

August 29, 2013
Research findings provide direct evidence that people with chronic diseases are more likely to be food insecure - that is suffering from inadequate, insecure access to food as a result of financial constraints. Previous research ...

BMC pediatricians warn that cuts to SNAP program will harm children

October 3, 2013
(Boston)—In a commentary in this week's issue of Lancet, pediatricians from Boston Medical Center (BMC) call the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly the Food Stamp Program), one of America's most cost-effective ...

New study outlines benefits of nutritional supplement use in college students

January 24, 2014
Habits acquired during young adulthood are crucial in fostering lifelong health. Unfortunately, some college students fall into nutrient-deficient diets that leave them at risk for developing chronic disease later in life. ...

New report says 3.9 million Canadians struggle to afford food

July 25, 2013
A new report by researchers at the University of Toronto shows that almost four million Canadians are struggling to put the food they need on the table because of food insecurity.

Study: College students not eating enough fruits and veggies

August 17, 2011
College students aren't eating enough fruits and vegetables – in fact, a new study shows students aren't even eating one serving per day, far from the recommended five daily servings.

Recommended for you

Study finds 275,000 calls to poison control centers for dietary supplement exposures from 2000 through 2012

July 24, 2017
U.S. Poison Control Centers receive a call every 24 minutes, on average, regarding dietary supplement exposures, according to a new study from the Center for Injury Research and Policy and the Central Ohio Poison Center, ...

Alcohol to claim 63,000 lives over next five years, experts warn

July 24, 2017
Alcohol consumption will cause 63,000 deaths in England over the next five years – the equivalent of 35 deaths a day – according to a new report from the University of Sheffield Alcohol Research Group.

App lets patients work alone or with others to prevent, monitor, and reverse chronic disease

July 24, 2017
Lack of patient adherence to treatment plans is a lingering, costly problem in the United States. But MIT Media Lab spinout Twine Health is proving that regular interventions from a patient's community of supporters can greatly ...

Alcohol boosts recall of earlier learning

July 24, 2017
Drinking alcohol improves memory for information learned before the drinking episode began, new research suggests.

To combat teen smoking, health experts recommend R ratings for movies that depict tobacco use

July 21, 2017
Public health experts have an unusual suggestion for reducing teen smoking: Give just about any movie that depicts tobacco use an automatic R rating.

Why sugary drinks and protein-rich meals don't go well together

July 20, 2017
Having a sugar-sweetened drink with a high-protein meal may negatively affect energy balance, alter food preferences and cause the body to store more fat, according to a study published in the open access journal BMC Nutrition.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.