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Breaking the “Starving Student” Myth: Understanding and Addressing Food Insecurity Needs on Campus

The project: Food insecurity, a condition of limited or uncertain access to nutritious food, is a critical issue for students’ health, academic achievement, and future well-being. Recent studies, including one conducted at the University of Michigan in 2015, have shown unprecedented high levels of food insecurity on college campuses.

The process: This mixed-methods project assessed the current prevalence, risk factors, and consequences of food insecurity through an online survey representative of the U-M student body in winter 2018. Researchers also used in-depth interviews of 39 students to qualitatively explore the lived experience of food-insecure students as well as innovative strategies to address food insecurity on campus.

Results: Survey results showed the prevalence of food insecurity was 32%. Levels of food insecurity were higher among Black and Hispanic students, first generation students, and students receiving financial aid. Student food insecurity was associated with poorer diet quality, including lower intake of fruits and fiber and higher intake of added sugar. Student food insecurity was also associated with higher body mass indices.

Preliminary themes from the interviews included:

  1. students feel helpless in the face of food insecurity (e.g. “It’s hard to focus because of a lack of energy. It’s frustrating because I want to eat more, and I know it would help”);
  2. food insecurity affects students’ mental well-being;
  3. food insecurity affects students’ physical health (e.g. “I did kind of starve. It is just this feeling where you are numb.”;
  4. food insecurity affects students’ academic performance; and
  5. food insecurity is related to other basic needs insecurities (“e.g. “My parents are broke from giving my tuition. It definitely affects how much food I buy.”).

Cindy Leung, School of Public Health
Alicia Cohen, School of Medicine
Nicole Kasper, School of Public Health