Millions of Americans turned to food banks for the first time in 2020 due to pandemic-related job losses and business closures. Who can forget the images of hundreds of cars lined up at food banks? Now, that recent history is repeating itself as more working Americans are overwhelmed by inflation and facing food insecurity.
When someone is “food-secure,” they always have access to a variety of nutritious and desirable foods. When they are “food-insecure,” they don’t have the resources to feed themselves nutritiously, or possibly at all. Many factors contribute to food insecurity, and the consequences are serious. They include hunger and feelings of deprivation, nutrient deficiencies, disordered eating — including binge eating when food is available — physical and mental health problems, loss of dignity and feelings of powerlessness.
Food insecurity disproportionately affects children and older adults, inner-city and rural residents, farmers, people of color — and college students who are living away from home. If that last one surprises you, you may be operating under the common misconception that most students come from middle- to high-income families who can support them financially. In fact, a 2019 report of survey data gathered from students at the University of Washington’s Seattle, Tacoma and Bothell campuses found that only 57% of students have family financial support.
According to the editors of the 2020 book “Food Insecurity on Campus: Action and Intervention,” part of the problem is that tuition and other costs are continuing to climb, but incomes aren’t keeping pace. Complex financial-aid processes that don’t cover the full cost of college plus a lack of affordable housing — 21% of UW students experienced rent increases in the year prior to the 2019 survey, and Seattle-area housing costs have continued to increase since then — are just two factors that can make it difficult for students to meet basic needs. Research from 2016 found that 32% of UW Tacoma students were food-insecure due to financial constraints, even when they had part- or full-time employment and federal educational loans.
The 2019 UW report found that more than one-fourth of students were worried about having enough food in the month prior to being surveyed. Of those, 19% ate less than they should, 18% either skipped a meal or reduced the size of the meal, while 15% were not able to eat even though they were hungry. In the 12 months prior to the survey, 7% of students across all three campuses didn’t eat for an entire day because they did not have enough money for food.
It’s easy to romanticize living off instant noodles, but this is a problem that can have lingering ramifications. Food insecurity makes it difficult to succeed academically and increases the risk of a student dropping out of college. Repaying student loans without having a college degree — which makes it easier to have a stable income — can be a financial burden that’s hard to get out from under.
Addressing food insecurity is one way that colleges and universities can increase degree completion rates, and the number of college food pantries in the U.S. has grown exponentially in the past decade. The California-based nonprofit Swipe Out Hunger, which does anti-hunger policy and advocacy work, has more than 450 campus partners across the country, including Seattle University, Seattle Pacific University and South Seattle College.
- Seattle Pacific University students experiencing food insecurity can apply to receive meals through campus dining.
- The Seattle U Food Pantry provides free, supplementary food to all students, staff and faculty with a current Seattle University ID card.
- Students at South Seattle College (and several other area colleges) who can’t afford groceries can apply to receive a free weekly grocery box.
All three UW campuses have food pantries. On the Seattle campus, the UW Food Pantry has served 980 students, staff and faculty — with a total of 2,500-3,000 visits — since opening in 2016, said director Alexander Silver. “We initially saw a dip in visitors during the early stages of the pandemic, due to many students going home to live with their families, but visits trended up starting in September 2021 when school returned to in-person classes,” he said. “Recession, inflation and rising gas prices have also led to a lot of UW students to seek out food assistance who haven’t experienced food insecurity before.”
Given the estimates of how many students are experiencing food insecurity, 980 students doesn’t seem like a lot. Silver said staff research has revealed certain barriers, including limited opening hours and days, cultural suitability of food options and general stigmas about accessing food assistance. Another barrier is the limited availability of ready-to-eat options (they cost more), which may be an issue for individuals who don’t have stable access to a working kitchen.
The UW Food Pantry offers shelf-stable products, UW Farm organic produce, ready-to-eat items donated by campus dining and outside businesses, as well as hygiene products. It acquires food through both purchasing and donations. “We also have a wonderful food drives coordinator that has brought over 2,500 pounds of donations in the spring alone,” Silver said.
A new academic year is just around the corner, so here are some details if you would like to donate:
- The UW Food Pantry accepts donations during pantry hours. It also has an Amazon Wish List. Silver said the pantry has particular need for personal care products (body wash, hand soap, toothbrushes, toothpaste), snacks (chips, nuts, applesauce) and gluten-free products, because they often run short on these items due to supply chain issues or budget constraints.
- The UW Bothell food pantry accepts financial donations, and the UW Tacoma food pantry accepts food and hygiene as well as financial donations, and has an Amazon Wish List.
- The Seattle U Food Pantry accepts donations during pantry hours and has an Amazon Wish List. Visit their website for details and a list of donation requests.
- The South Seattle College food pantry accepts financial donations online.