Our interviewees’ experiences of food insecurity looked different from one another in ways that are both indicative of the range of experiences as categorized in the survey data, and help demonstrate the complex lived experience of these classifications. After describing the types and frequencies of food insecurity demonstrated in the survey data, we utilize excerpts from the interviews of one particular student, Cocoa, to add nuance to the quantitative data and underscore the importance of our multivariable analysis. We then use excerpts from other students to highlight particular challenges and coping strategies in regards to food insecurity. These qualitative findings both align with and add richness to our conceptual model, underscoring the importance of understanding food insecurity as existing along a spectrum and thereby requiring the response of multifaceted research, policy, and collegiate practices.
3.1. Prevalence and Forms of Food Insecurity
From the survey, thirty percent of students experienced food insecurity with hunger as evidenced by at least one of the following non-mutually exclusive indicators: eating less than they felt they should because there was not enough money to buy food (21%), cutting or skipping meals because there was not enough money for food (21%), sometimes not getting enough to eat (9%), not eating for a whole day because there was not enough money for food (7%), and often not getting enough to eat (1%) (Table 2
). Eighteen percent of respondents answered in the affirmative to two or more of these survey items.
We use multivariable logistic regression to examine relationships between the characteristics described in our conceptual model and food insecurity with hunger during college. Results indicate several statistically significant predictors including race/ethnicity, past experiences of food insecurity, current residence, and geographic location. In the adjusted model, students who grew up in a food insecure home have a 40% chance of experiencing food insecurity during college whereas those who grew up in a food secure home have a predicted probability of 19%, a difference of 21 percentage points or roughly double the chance (p
< 0.001). All else equal, the predicted probability of food insecurity with hunger is 35% for racial/ethnic minorities and 26% for racial/ethnic majority students whereas it is 33% for those who attend college in an urban community and 26% for those in rural or suburban communities (p
< 0.05). In addition, those who live in off-campus housing have a 37% chance of food insecurity compared to 26% for those who live at home with their parents and 23% among those who live on campus, after adjusting for background characteristics (p
< 0.01) (Table 3
Cocoa, who identifies as a Black woman, faced lifelong poverty, and ongoing issues of hunger that continued to manifest in her early adulthood, including her period of college enrollment. Her social identities and experiences align with our quantitative examination of variation in food security status among students from low-income families. Specifically, she is a racial minority, her past included experiences of food insecurity, she attended college in an urban area, and her residences included off-campus housing. The interconnectedness of these identities and experiences may help to explain why her material hardship challenges were among the most severe in our sample.
When we first met Cocoa, she was attending a four-year university in her urban hometown. We asked her how college was going and if she had any financial concerns. “Eating. That’s my main issue—no money to eat because we so living in poverty”, she replied. She explained that “living in poverty is very complicated” and lack of money causes her “a lot” of stress as she struggles to the pay the bills and afford basic needs while attending college. “My phone is off because I didn’t pay my bill ‘cause my pay wasn’t enough from my job”. When we inquired, “How much would you say money causes you stress?” she ranked her stress level as 10 out of 10: “Ten—you ain’t got no food. You ain’t got no car. You ain’t got no gas for your car. You ain’t got no transportation, period. You got to get papers done and everything”. She went on to say, “If I have money, I would not be looking at other people’s faces while they eating … I can’t focus”. The stress and anxiety from worrying about how to get enough food to eat as well as the outright lack of food inhibited Cocoa’s ability to do her best in school.
When Cocoa started college, she lived on campus and had a meal plan for the university cafeteria, “but that ran out a long time ago”, she said, “so no meal plan no more”. She could not afford to invest in a larger meal plan so if she wanted to eat in the cafeteria, she now had to pay “double”, explaining that the food items are twice as expensive for those without an active meal plan. For Cocoa, it was not worth it. Growing up, experiences of severe poverty when “there wasn’t food in the house” and being placed into foster care due to poor living conditions contributed to her complex relationship with food in adulthood, including ongoing struggles with “appetite”. Even when Cocoa had a meal plan, she had difficulty eating the food provided by her university’s cafeteria:
It’s like I’m not used to their food, really, so I have to—I have to decide like what I want to eat, when I want to eat it; and it’s going to take a long time for me to like—to really eat it because sometimes I’m a slow eater. Sometimes when I’m hungry, I eat fast. It’s different—my appetite. It’s different, but I gotta adjust … it’s gonna take me a certain time to eat … like my appetite build up. I guess that’s why—it goes from the past.
Consistent with prior research, Cocoa’s description of her early experiences with hunger and associated trauma illustrate how prior instances of food insecurity can manifest in multiple forms, including ongoing issues related to appetite and anxiety (Alaimo 2005
; Hamelin et al. 2002
; Radimer et al. 1990
Due to financial problems, Cocoa moved out of the dorms and stayed with relatives before moving into a homeless shelter. When recounting her experiences living in these various places, her preoccupation with food was evident as she described the types of food available and her experiences with appetite during her stay. Thus, experiences of food insecurity not only varied across individual students in our study, they were dependent on the context and environment that students experienced throughout their college career.
3.2. Challenges for Food-Insecure Students
Understanding the particular problems that food-insecure students experience and the interrelated nature of these challenges provides essential insights to the development of potential solutions. Here, we use interview and survey data to examine the types of food-related problems that students face. For example, Tou is a Hmong American man who attends a four-year university and works at grocery store near his family home where he earns minimum wage. Given his busy schedule, his only time to eat is often on-the-job, which provides him with few nutritious and affordable options. “I just have a couple bags of chips and just eat that right there”. At less than $2, the chips are inexpensive, but they only provide temporary relief. After a few hours, Tou says, “I’m hungry again. And there’s nothing to eat usually”. Here, Tou explains how lack of time and lack of resources are key barriers to consistent access to nutritious food.
Survey results indicate that Tou is not alone in these challenges. Lack of time is the most commonly reported barrier among those who are food insecure with hunger. Specifically, 70% reported that they do “not have enough time to eat because of a busy schedule”, but there is significant variation in self-reported challenges among those with the lowest levels of food security. Females, those who are currently employed, and four-year college students were especially likely to indicate that they “do not have enough time to eat because of a busy schedule” (74–75%, p
< 0.05) (Table 4
Students, like Alicia, help us understand the multiple demands and obligations that today’s undergraduates often face as they juggle school, work, and family obligations. Alicia is an African American woman who attends a large-public-urban university full-time and regularly works 32 h per week in an off-campus job to support her family. She lives off campus with her daughter and has access to transportation resources and kitchen facilities. She explained that it is a struggle to find the time to eat because of her hectic work and school schedules saying, “I don’t have time to cook at home” except for Sundays, which is a “big family day”. “But other than that, we eat fast food. And it’s, it’s bad. It’s bad, but... we eat a lot of fast food cause it’s convenient”, suggesting that she was not happy with eating so much fast food but felt that there were no other options given her limited budget. Though she “resorted to eating more fast food than she wanted”, Alicia was careful to select fast food items with the highest nutritional value, saying “we like the baked chicken at the [local] gyro place…it’s not as bad as going to McDonalds”. Alicia was well aware of the strategic trade-offs that she was making with her time and financial resources each day and concluded that accessing quick affordable hot meals was the best short-term solution for her and her family.
These competing responsibilities, including working to pay for college, limit the time that students are able to devote to food preparation and eating. Due to their time and resource constrictions, several of the students reported that they relied on “junk food” to quell hunger sensations. Students often expressed regret about these choices, explaining that their food choices were far from optimal and had negative consequences for their health and ability to concentrate in the classroom. For some students, these challenges were compounded by a lack of affordable food on campus. Both Alicia and Joaquin, a Latino man with a young daughter, reported that the college cafeterias at their four-year universities were prohibitively expensive. Joaquin stated that the cafeteria is “expensive, so I try to limit [eating on-campus]. I probably bring, sometimes I bring an apple and orange or something and keep it with me and just munch on it”. As a student who lives in a rural area and commutes to school and work, Joaquin estimated that he and his wife “spend about $500 a month on gas” and often struggled to keep their cars running. So, he scheduled his classes for a few days each week and stayed on campus all day to save money on transportation; as a result, he lacked access to affordable food on those days.
Survey results indicate that lack of transportation and working appliances created barriers to food security for some students. Specifically, 13% of students who are food insecure with hunger reported that they do “not have transportation to get to the store to purchase food” though interview data, as described above, suggest that some students make tradeoffs that prioritize paying for transportation over food. A greater share of students who identify as a racial/ethnic minority (19%) or attend college in urban areas (19%) indicated that lack of transportation was a barrier to their food security (p
< 0.05). Finally, 6% of students struggling with hunger indicated that they do “not have working appliances for storing of preparing food”. There is no evidence that this challenge varies by background characteristics and none of the students in our interview sample described problems with kitchen appliances (Table 4
The students we interviewed each drew on distinct strengths and talents to try to make ends meet while pursuing a higher education. Rather than pinpointing a single cause, they described an ongoing balancing act with limited time and money that often resulted in going without food or eating the cheapest quickest food that they could find. Many students considered hunger a short-term sacrifice for the potential of longer-term economic success associated with a college degree and so prioritized their spending accordingly.
3.3. Coping with Food Security Challenges
While students often turn to family and friends for support, some also rely on the public social safety net for food stamps (i.e., SNAP—Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), healthcare, and childcare assistance. Overall, 10% of survey respondents used food stamps to purchase food while 13% of those who are food insecure with hunger drew on this formal support (p
< 0.05). Thus, food stamps are effective in helping some students reach food security, while they are an inadequate support for others. Among those who are food insecure with hunger, student parents are the most likely to have used food stamps (59% vs. 11% without a dependent child, p
< 0.001), likely due to eligibility criteria that provides an exception for those with young children. Similarly, 43% of financially independent students used food stamps versus 10% of students who are dependent on their families for financial aid purposes (p
< 0.001). Students with a zero-dollar expected family contribution, indicating few financial resources, were more likely to use food stamps than those with a higher EFC (27% vs. 4%, p
< 0.0001) and racial/ethnic minorities were more likely to report using food stamps than their majority peers (22% vs. 8%, p
< 0.001). Food stamp usage is also associated with current residence and sector of college enrollment. Just 2% of on-campus residence students used food stamps compared to 18% who live off campus and 14% who live with their parents while 21% of two-year college students used food stamps compared to just 8% of four-year college students (p
< 0.001). There is no statistical evidence that food stamp usage varies by students’ employment status nor by sex, immigrant family status, childhood food security level, or urban location (Table 5
Joaquin and Alicia are examples of the types of student who are most likely to receive SNAP and both explained how essential this program is to helping make ends meet. Joaquin, for example, said, “We get about two hundred dollars a month, or something, so that helps out a lot. Yeah, that helps out a real lot, and that’s how we get our groceries so that’s really what, what we need”. In both cases, a family member told Joaquin and Alicia that they might be eligible for public food assistance. Because they both care for a young dependent child, they were eligible for and received food stamps as well as health insurance and childcare resources. Together, this package of public resources provides valuable support. “Every bit helps”, says Alicia. But even with a combination of private and public supports—including financial aid—and work, students like Joaquin and Alicia regularly cut back on food, skip meals, and struggle to eat the kinds of food that they prefer.
Part of the reason why food stamp usage varies by individual-level characteristics is due to the complex SNAP eligibility criteria discussed above. Students who met the standard income and asset criteria, but not the supplemental criterion, were often frustrated by the lack of public support. Cocoa explained that she is not eligible for Food Share, Wisconsin’s version of SNAP due to her college enrollment. “Food … that’s a big issue for me … I was hungry, and you can’t get like Food Share. Since I’m 20, I’m old enough to get it … but while I’m in college I can’t get it … They don’t give you like a Quest [food stamp debit] card if you’re a full-time student”. At a subsequent interview, Cocoa considered herself underweight. “I’m probably like ninety-two pounds right now … [down from] one-hundred-and five”, she said, though her goal weight was “one fifteen”. For students, like Cocoa, who do not have a strong social network to rely on for support, the lack of public food assistance was particularly consequential.
In addition to formal support, nearly six in ten students reported that they “get help from family or friends to pay for groceries or other food” on the survey. There is no evidence that students who are food insecure with hunger are more or less likely to draw on this informal support in comparison to their food secure peers (p
> 0.10). Indeed, there is no evidence that use of this informal support varies across individual background characteristics though students who attend college in urban areas were more likely to report help from friends and family (66% vs. 55%) (p
< 0.05) (Table 5
Receiving help from one’s family—and offering it in return—was a common theme in our interviews with students. As noted in prior research, students who grew up in poverty were especially likely to discuss the importance of family reciprocity or “collective labor expected within family networks to ensure its survival” (Roksa and Kinsley 2018
; Kinsley 2014
; Stack and Burton 1993, p. 7
). Ian, an African American man who attends an urban four-year university, lives with his family who also struggles with food insecurity and hunger. He explained that when there’s not enough food to eat “we just divide it amongst us, you know, so we didn’t get too greedy. You already knew, like, what to do ‘cause we already in the situation so many times. So we just divide [the food] amongst each other, you know, and let each other know like don’t eat too much”. He credits this approach to sharing scarce food resources to the way he was raised:
You’re supposed to always look out for your family no matter how much money you got. If you got a dollar or something, you know, if there’s four of them and they need something, [then] you give them a quarter a piece. That’s how we supposed to be raised. That’s how [my father] raised us actually and that’s how—ever since then—that’s how I’ve been trying to do it, you know, whenever I come across a—it don’t have to be much as long as I come across a certain amount [of] money that can benefit me and my family I’m going to try to do that as much as possible, yeah.
Even though Ian cuts and skips meals due to a lack of money, he says that it is a “relief” whenever he is able to help his parents or siblings financially. “[I] want to do more for them, you know, that’s what pushes me through college and everything, so I can help them out a lot”. In this way, Ian and his family provide essential material and emotional resources for one another.
Ian, like many of the students we talked with, explained that making ends meet is a full family affair, rather than the sole responsibility of parents. When someone is able to pitch in and pay for basic necessities like groceries, they do so for the entire family. In Ian’s case, his brothers “help out a lot” and “look out” for each other. Alicia had a similar upbringing. She says that she could always call on her father when money was tight. “Yes, whenever the food got low he was the first one to call, you know, we knew that he was going to help us out”. For Tou, he describes his family as “communal” and explains that they all support one another financially, “[I] give up a [pay]check or two every time I get one to help my parents”. Indeed, he chose not to take interim classes so that he could “help pay off the bills”. While Tou would like to work fulltime to help his family, he says, “my dad makes me work part time…he says it’ll be too hard” to balance college with a full-time job. Tou says his dad “just wants [us kids] to go to school, but sometimes he has to [let us work]” in order to make ends meet. Similarly, Bethany, an African American woman who lives on campus describes how she would call her mom when she ran out of food. Rather than explicitly ask for help, Bethany could call her mom and say, “‘I just love you so much’” and her mom will respond, “‘You ran out of food?’” When she says yes, her mom will say, “‘Okay, I’ll be there in 15 minutes’ so that’s usually how it goes”. Bethany says her mom is her “best friend” and they provide a significant amount of financial, social, and emotional support for one another. Across cultural backgrounds and throughout Wisconsin, the food-insecure students in our study described how reciprocal financial and material support was essential to their survival.
Of course, the extent to which students’ social networks could meet their basic needs and ensure food security varied dramatically. Ian’s family, for example, regularly struggled to make ends meet and went without food despite sharing resources. Joaquin’s family, on the other hand, provided substantial levels of financial and in-kind support to him, his wife, and daughter. He says, my wife’s “mom came up with the idea to stay at their [retirement] house, you know, and just take care of the house there—maintain it or whatever—and we just pay them the bills and stuff so we actually pay like almost no rent”. With additional help from Joaquin’s family for babysitting, house maintenance, and car repairs, Joaquin has one of strongest and most robust social support networks in our sample.
Though students explained how they relied on family, friends, and the social safety net to help make ends meet, they did not explicitly discuss employment, wages, or financial aid as a way to cope with food insecurity. It appears that working and receiving financial aid are taken-for-granted parts of the college experience for students in our sample. Even with financial aid, work, assistance from friends and family, and public food assistance, substantial shares of students are food insecure with hunger.