BY THE NUMBERS
› 56 percent of students at 70 community colleges across the country are food insecure
› 35 percent have experienced housing instability
› 14 percent are or have experienced homelessness
Source: Wisconsin HOPE Lab at the University of Wisconsin - Madison
Popular culture often features jokes or references to the archetype of "the starving college student."
They are often rumpled, young adults who wake up late and rush to class.
They heat up Ramen noodles in their dorm microwaves and eat odd concoctions of cheap, easy junk food (mostly pizza) and can be bribed to sit through any meeting or outlandish presentation if it involves food.
In reality, the joke isn't funny, said Jenifer Rose, a Chattanooga State Community College student. College students are hungry — a lot of them.
Half of all community college students are struggling or have struggled with food insecurity — defined by the United States Department of Agriculture as having limited or uncertain access to food, resulting in hunger — according to a 2017 report from the Wisconsin HOPE Lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Chattanooga State, following similar efforts by other local institutions including the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and Lee University, took the first steps to addressing those challenges earlier this week when it launched the Tiger Cupboard, a food pantry, on campus.
"We know that sometimes things that happen outside of the classroom are impediments to students' success in the classroom," said Rebecca Ashford, president of Chattanooga State. "Imagine you are sitting in a math class trying to pay attention to a subject that might be challenging to you and you're hungry."
The Tiger Cupboard, located in the student center on Chattanooga State's main campus, is stocked with mostly nonperishable food and personal hygiene items collected through donations and drives organized by volunteers.
Bill Taylor, instructor at Chattanooga State and adviser to the Social Justice Club, helped spearhead the initiative alongside Rose. Faculty members, he said, are often privy to the barriers in the way of their students' success.
"Challenges students face not in the classroom have nothing to do with ability, intelligence and work ethic," Taylor said. "They have to do with circumstance."
Significant research has been done on hunger among students in grades K-12, and community resources and services also pour into K-12 school programs to address hungry students.
Unfortunately for many, once they graduate from high school, turn 18 and enter the post-secondary setting, those services are no longer available.
"There are great studies out there that look at K-12 students who come from families with food insecurities," said Brett Fuchs, associate dean of students at UTC. "That certainly doesn't change when they go to college, what just changes is they become an adult and are on their own."
At UTC, 43 percent of students have reported going hungry, according to data from a campus needs assessment — with 5 percent of those students reporting to have experienced going without a meal more than five times in a semester. In 2017, the university launched Scrappy's Cupboard, which is operated by volunteers and staff from the dean of student's office.
Some of the misunderstandings about student hunger come from outdated ideas on characteristics of demographics of college students.
"A lot of people still don't know that the traditional version of a college student, an 18-to-22-year-old right after high school with family support, doesn't really describe college students anymore," said Jed Richardson, acting director of the Wisconsin HOPE Lab.
Richardson said college students who are parents, who are independent for financial aid purposes or receive financial aid, and students who were formerly in the foster care system are all more likely to struggle to make ends meet.
Pell Grant recipients also have higher rates of hunger, but they aren't the only students facing challenges.
"We see students from both groups — students who maybe grew up in households that struggled with food security who did receive free or reduced-priced lunch through their K-12 education and once they continue and make that transition from 12th to kinda 13th grade, those services are no longer available, and those who don't come from such households," said Katharine Broton, assistant professor at the University of Iowa's College of Education. "The price of college is creating a situation where perhaps they are food insecure for the first time."
At Chattanooga State, 37 percent of students are Pell Grant-eligible and 33 percent at UTC. Though neither organization tracks why students withdraw or stop continuing their education, anecdotally many cite financial stress as the biggest reason.
Fuchs cites that financial struggles extend past basic food needs to issues with housing, sometimes even homelessness, that can impede a student's success. The university's goal is to help connect students with services, whether outside programs or governmental assistance, that can help.
"What can we do for them to be successful? What can we do to get them some food to keep them going, to make sure they can remain on campus? That's our goal," Fuchs asked.
The use of public assistance services such as food stamps or housing assistance is low among college students nationally, Richardson said.
"That's happening for a couple reasons," he said. "Students aren't even always aware they are eligible for those programs and a lot of these programs aren't built for college students some of them require work, or often there's not enough assistance to go around."
Researchers such as those at the HOPE Lab have already begun to use data to inform policy recommendations and action steps that students, institutions and elected officials can all take.
"There is so much that we need that is not being provided for [students] at schools, outside of the actual academic things that we all know about," Rose said, such as tutoring or financial services.
Sandy Rutter, dean of student engagement and support services at Chattanooga State, hopes the college can eventually expand services offered to students. The future vision for the Tiger Cupboard is as one piece of a community market. The school is already partnering with Northside Neighborhood House to provide professional clothes for students to use for interviews, and at UTC the dean of student's office often helps connect students with temporary or low-cost housing.
"It's not only about the fact that we are going to be able to give students food," Rutter said. "We have lots of work still to do."
What does “food insecurity mean”?
The United States Department of Agriculture, the umbrella where many food and nutrition programs fall under, defines food security or insecurity in ranges. Those labels are:
› High food security: no reported indications of food-access problems or limitations
› Marginal food security: one or two reports of anxiety over food sufficiency or shortage of food in the house; little or no indication of changes in diets or food intake.
› Low food security: reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet; little or no indication of reduced food intake
› Very low food security: reports of multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake
Source: United States Department of Agriculture