Photographs and videos depicting America’s food insecurities have been projected all over the media these last few months. Mile-long lines of people gather outside of food banks waiting for a substantial meal. Then there’s the coverage of individuals struggling to get even the insufficient benefits of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The problem is: this is nothing new.
Those of us who have been plugged in to this issue know that this has been a reality facing many Americans for centuries. If you’re surprised by just how tragic and grim this reality is, it may be that you’re only seeing it for the first time because the pandemic has amplified food insecurity across the nation.
College students have always been one of the most vulnerable demographics to food insecurity. Many of these students have been granted scholarships to help get them through school, but they have little to no income of their own. Students without scholarships are faced with the high (and continuously rising) costs of tuition and housing. Even before the pandemic, this was enough to impact students in need. Between 2015 and 2019, one study uncovered that around 42-56 percent of two-year college students reported experiencing food insecurity. While four-year students weren’t as highly impacted, over 30 percent still reported limited access to food.
Enter the pandemic. When COVID-19 first swept the nation, colleges were quick to send students home in an effort to protect their safety. An understandable and preventative measure, but a detrimental decision for some low-income students. Not everyone had a safe space to return back to — and some had no home at all. Losing access to campus-provided food not only compromises someone’s health, but it’s a reason why so many students never end up actually going on to complete their degrees.
In response to the coronavirus crisis, many employers were also forced to temporarily or permanently close their doors. This left many students jobless; without any form of stable income, they have no barrier against hunger. That same online study I mentioned earlier studied the impacts of food insecurity in the midst of COVID-19 and found that three out of every five students are now reporting increased food insecurity.
As you can imagine, food insecurity severely impacts someone’s mental health. In a normal year, the stress of homework and projects alone is enough to cause anxiety and depression in students. Add in the weight of financial concern and hunger, these impacts are amplified twofold. Then, add in a pandemic, which has only bolstered these issues, and it becomes even more detrimental.
With community colleges and universities gradually opening up again, many think that these issues will slowly begin to fade away. Unfortunately, even with emergency aid for low-income students, food insecurity is still a pressing concern. Even notable campuses like New York University are struggling to feed their students, which were recently put under a 14-day quarantine after returning to campus.
These students immediately flocked to TikTok to share videos of these inadequate meals, with clips of granola bars, bags of potato chips, and moldy fruit composing their “meals” for the day. Some students reported that their meals arrived hours later, while some never received their food at all. Some students that received their meals were unable to eat them because the university was unable to comply with their dietary restrictions. A lack of food and a limited number of team members, campus dining services have clearly been unable to keep up.
We already know that the coronavirus disproportionately causes more illness and death among racial and ethnic minority groups. With students already unable to feed themselves, and colleges failing to support their most in-need students, this is a dangerous time.