Food Insecurity a Silent Problem on College Campuses

Food insecurity, where one has uncertain access to affordable nutritious food, is a rising issue experienced by most American individuals. With the rising cost of living and inflation, many find themselves skipping on meals or reducing portion sizes to save money or food.

One third of college students experience weekly food insecurity, even if they are not aware that they are food insecure. Lack of knowledge regarding resources and perceived stigma prevent students from accessing on campus food assistance.

Barriers to Accessing Food
Information shown in this pie chart was collected via a student survey created in a Technical Writing class and distributed in Whatcom County February and March 2024. Graph by Kaatri Glanzer and Jake Balsiger

A recent survey conducted for a WCC Technical Writing class, taken across the four Whatcom County colleges – Western Washington University (WWU), Whatcom Community College (WCC), Bellingham Technical College (BTC) and Northwest Indian College (NWIC) – revealed that more than 50% of students claim their primary reason for not making use of on campus food pantries and food assistance was lack of knowledge.

Not knowing how the food pantries work and not knowing where to find them were the main reasons students under-utilized on campus food assistance resources. Almost a quarter of students claimed they did not have time to use campus food pantries. A small percent said concern about perceived stigma prevented them from using a food pantry or food bank.

Research data published in the August 2019 Journal of Public Affairs, states that food insecurity affects academic performance. Students that reported being food insecure also reported a lower GPA than their food secure classmates.Food provides the human body with essential nutrients. Limiting that intake negatively affects a person’s ability to perform adequately in all aspects of their life. 

Salish Current reporter, Sadie Fink, found that from food banks to grab-and-go meals, Whatcom higher education institutions are trying to address and alleviate the arising issue of food insecurity among college students.These programs are becoming more supported due to increased awareness of the growing population of young people struggling with consistent access to food.

A robust food pantry exists at WCC, run on donations and also supported by ASWCC allocated funds. WWU sports “pocket pantries” across its campus that are conveniently open during the school’s same hours.

Food Pantry
WCC’s Orca Food Pantry holds canned goods and other items, can be found in the Syre building. Photo by Summer Isakson

Despite food pantries being by far, the most common method on college campuses, they certainly aren’t the most perfect. However, there remains logistical aspects about the organization of campus-based programs that could use improvement for the sake of student benefit.

Barriers to Using Food Resources

In general, a lack of coordination behind campus services poses a significant detriment to the success of these programs. Authors of “Campus-based Programs to Address Food Insecurity Vary in Leadership, Funding, and Evaluation Strategies,” concluded that more coordinated leadership is needed to make these programs effective for the people they serve (Hagedorn et  al., 2022).

“These programs are becoming an essential service in higher education,” noted Hagedorn and co-authors, “and their success will be dependent on a highly coordinated programme across multiple departments that is adequately funded and measures programme outcomes.”

It’s common business knowledge: the success of any program, including campus-based food pantries, relies on carefully organized operations. Hagedorn and co-authors also explained that collaborative organization also benefits their users: “In addition, a coordinated approach will provide the end users, the students, with a more seamless set of programmes that are accessible to students and achieve the intended results to decrease food insecurity on college campuses.”

Yusuke Okazaki, Associate Director for Intercultural Services, speculates about the barriers preventing students from approaching and accessing WCC’s Orca Food Pantry on campus. He claims that, despite his best efforts, students remain apprehensive of entering through the doors of WCC’s food pantry.

Cup o Noodles in Food Pantry
The classic Cup of Noodles can be found at the Orca Food Pantry. Photo by Summer Isakson

“I wonder about everything we offer,” Okazaki noted. “All the resources and services: Are students just not interested? Not needing them or just not know about them, right? Because those are three different things. There’s a good chunk of campus that just don’t know that we have a food pantry, or where it is, or just how official it is. For those that do know about it, I think there’s a lot of hesitation in accessing resources.”

It’s less logical and more logistical. Fortunately, students know that food services exist on their college campus in some form or another—whether it’s a public food pantry, meal swipe cards, or food donation bins. However, it’s the apparent lack of knowledge about how campus-based food services function (hours of operation and where they are located) that deters students’ approach to these programs.

Reducing Barriers

Okazaki and student Intercultural Center Peer Navigator Luis Martinez propose normalizing conversation about basic needs as being significant to eliminating these barriers of stigma and unawareness surrounding student access. To Martinez, there are progressive benefits to more open discussion about asking for help in any domain despite associated stigmas.

“The more you talk about it, the more it becomes a norm and the more OK it is,” claimed Martinez. “When you don’t talk about it and you leave it alone, it continues to be an ‘Oh, don’t go there!’ kind of thing.”

It’s important to examine the the obstacles currently hindering college Student Life departments from being as advantageous as they can be for the students they serve. Okazaki claims that it’s a matter of limited resources at WCC while others say it’s the restrictive monitoring.

Several student respondents praised WCC Orca Pantry’s variety of food offerings, ranging from teas, coffee, protein shakes, instant noodle packs – while simultaneously criticizing its one-visit-per-week restriction. This situation is less than ideal for students who are extremely food insecure and need closer to a daily supplementation.

As a solution, other less strictly monitored food supply cabinets can be found around WCC’s campus. Student Life in Syre Hall, containing nonperishable food items free to be taken as needed. 

The “dent is still felt for full time students”, one student declared, grateful regardless for the supplementation. It’s clear that any help is appreciated; no small act goes wasted.

As most tough topics go, without open discussion, progressive conversation about food insecurity remains stagnant – the perpetual “elephant in the room.” Therefore, normalizing conversation around asking for help could aid students in receiving the assistance they need to end the silent suffering regarding food insecurity. 

WCC co-authors: Kaatri Glanzer and Jake Balsiger

This article was written for a Technical Writing class and submitted for publication with the Horizon. Horizon editor: Annette Townsend

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