The holidays can be difficult for many high school and college students who may not have enough to eat. School resuming can be a welcome return for young people facing food insecurity—inadequate or inconsistent access to food necessary for a healthy life— who often rely on school-based programs for their meals.
Childhood food insecurity (PDF) rates are typically higher than food insecurity rates overall, and the unique food insecurity challenges that teens and college students face deserve greater attention.
In 2019, our Urban Institute research team traveled to six counties across the US to hold conversations about the realities of food insecurity and develop local recommendations for disrupting insecurity at its roots. Through data walks and focus groups, we heard directly from young people and local stakeholders about the challenges older teens and college students face in accessing healthy food, as well as ideas for innovative local solutions to address these problems.
Teens want to be involved in solutions
The young people we spoke with understood how food insecurity relates to other factors like housing costs, wages, community safety, transportation access and costs, and health challenges. One teen from Perry County, Kentucky, said, “A lot of people have money, but they can’t provide meals. They make too much money, so they can’t qualify for the benefits. Too much money for that is still not enough to survive.”
As these teens explained, addressing youth food insecurity means creating policies that address the underlying social and economic conditions preventing people from earning enough to support their family’s needs. Perry County teens talked about the need to diversify their local economy and bring in new jobs to replace those that were lost when the coal industry declined.
They also noted an opportunity to both increase youth employment and tackle food insecurity by expanding food service programs. One group of young people brainstormed an example of a program where they could obtain commercial driver’s licenses through classes at the community college and then get jobs driving residents to grocery stores or farmers’ markets or delivering food boxes to homes and workplaces.
Many communities’ existing efforts that focus on youth food insecurity are school or program based. In Indiana County, Pennsylvania, and Fresno County, California, backpack programs send extra food home with students for the weekend.
Based on past Urban research, we believe teens may be less likely to participate in these programs because of stigma or disconnect from the school system. Teens we spoke with liked these food assistance programs and suggested the addition of school, cooking, and household supplies to the program.
Across the six counties, the teens wanted to participate in broader decisionmaking efforts in their own communities. Previous Urban Institute work has helped pilot teen leadership development programs centered on food justice that organize food distribution events.
We’ve learned from past work about the importance of overcoming the stigma felt by teens around food assistance programs. Fresno County and Perry County youth proposed that charitable organizations, service providers, schools, and political entities could create teen advisory groups to assist with program design and outreach efforts to help combat this stigma. Teens also noted the importance of recognizing what youth food insecurity looks like and communicating those realities to decisionmakers.
Adapting food insecurity efforts for college students
In our focus groups, college students, parents, and university stakeholders highlighted the unique food insecurity challenges college students face. They shared how college students’ strained budgets, busy schedules, and lack of access to transportation can reduce the funds and time they have available to purchase healthy food. Urban Institute research shows that food insecurity is a concern for college students, particularly those at two-year colleges.
We heard that college students are not eligible for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits unless they are also able to meet several other requirements, including a work requirement. Residents and stakeholders also talked about how support systems like free and reduced-price school lunch go away in college, so college students have to find new food sources.
The only place you can get food is on campus, and it’s hard to store food because you only have a small fridge to share. It’s much easier to store packaged food, but there’s also no stores within the borough or reasonable walking distance, [and] riding the bus can take a long time.
The food on campus is very expensive, the dining halls don’t have compatible hours, and you can’t take food to go. Financial and time management trade-offs take health out of the equation.
—Indiana County, Pennsylvania, parent of a student at a local university
To address these challenges, stakeholders in Mississippi are developing coalitions of colleges and universities tackling college food insecurity and food pantries for students and staff, like the Eagle’s Nest Food Pantry at the University of Southern Mississippi. We also heard from stakeholders at Fresno State University who are using innovative approaches to redistribute food access, such as their Swipe Out Hunger and Catered Cupboard programs.
Like teen-focused programs, food assistance programs for college students also must combat the stigma around food insecurity. College students discussed the need for increasing affordable food options for students and destigmatizing food insecurity.
Although there has traditionally been support for school food programs, teens and college students need to be part of conversations around larger drivers of food insecurity and potential solutions.
Increasing federal and local support for addressing youth and student food insecurity is crucial because these age groups have not been historically thought of as food insecure, so there are not programs specifically crafted for and centering them. These efforts need to encourage youth as leaders in decisionmaking around food access in their lives.