PhotoThere is a well-worn cliché of the “starving artist” but the “starving college student,” not so much. However, the two may have more in common than you think.

While the popular perception is of college students putting on weight – the “freshman 15” – a study published in a nutrition journal found a surprising 59% of students at one Oregon university were “food insecure” at some point during the previous year.

Researchers from Oregon State University, the Benton County Health Department, and Western Oregon University conducted the study, surveying students at Western Oregon.

“Based on other research that’s been done, we expected some amount of food concerns among college students,” said Daniel López-Cevallos, associate director of research at OSU’s Center for Latino/a Studies and Engagement. “But it was shocking to find food insecurity of this severity. Several recent trends may be combining to cause this.”

Little money left for food

The most significant trend is the high cost of attending college. Not only does tuition seem to go up each year but textbooks are very expensive. There are also more low-income and first-generation students attending college than in years past.

“For past generations, students living on a lean budget might have just considered it part of the college experience, a transitory thing,” said Megan Patton-López, lead author of the study with Oregon’s Benton County Health Department. “But rising costs of education are now affecting more people.” she said.

It's also possible, she says, that many students were food-insecure before they arrived on campus, so it's simply a continuation of the life they have known.

“It becomes a way of life, and they don’t have as many resources to help them out,” she said.

Why don't they get part-time jobs? They do, the study found. Some work more than one job, but it's not always enough to pay for three squares a day, every day.

Food insecurity doesn't always mean going hungry. It is defined as limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods, and the ability to acquire such food in acceptable ways. It has been associated with depression, stress, trouble learning in the classroom, and poor health.

Colleges trying to help

Increasingly colleges and universities have begun to address the food issue with students, but most often it is advice for not over-eating or eating too much unhealthy food.

Clarke University offers students “10 Healthy Eating Tips,” among them always eating a good breakfast.

“Studies show that skipping breakfast detracts from scholastic achievement,” the university advises. “When there isn’t time to sit down and enjoy your morning meal, grab a bagel, piece of fruit, and some juice. Most of these items can be easily stored in your residence hall room.” 

Student Health Services at Rutgers University focuses on helping students avoid weight gain, urging portion control and watching what they drink – less alcohol and sugary beverages and more water. It also emphasizes a healthy diet. 

“Don't make it hard for yourself to eat right,” it advises. “Buy healthy foods and stock your fridge and room with them to ensure they're the first things at hand when you get hungry.”

The University of Michigan Health System, meanwhile, has published a guide for healthy eating on a budget. It urges students to carefully plan trips to the grocery, selecting only healthy items to make nutritious meals. 

“Don’t be tempted by amazing sales or coupons,” it says. “Stick to the list, avoid buying sale items just because they are a good deal. If you aren’t going to eat it, it’s a waste of money. Same goes for sales on junk food.”

The Oregon researchers, meanwhile, says the issue of food insecurity among college students is one that deserves more attention than it is getting. While about 14.9 percent of all households in the nation report food insecurity, they says the number of college students voicing similar concerns in this report was almost four times higher.


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