Pizza and fro-yo may be what most college students want. But University of Minnesota student Choua Lee was pumped about grapefruit.

“Now, that’s what I call a treat,” said Choua, 20, a youth studies major from Minneapolis.

Lee was one of about 800 U students who recently stood in line to get a bag of free groceries (grapefruit included) at the monthly food shelf distribution at Coffman Union.

Anthony Lawlor also appreciated the offerings, which included fresh fruit and vegetables, a package of rice or noodles and one protein item, such as a can of beans or tuna or a jar of peanut butter.

“The budget is tight at the end of the month,” said Lawlor, 28, an information technology major from Monticello, Minn.

Broke college students have long relied on ramen and mac and cheese, fare that is cheap and filling. But in the past few years, a shift in the economy, coupled with rising tuition and housing costs, have left more of these young adults with bare cupboards and gnawing hunger.

Food insecurity now cuts across higher education in Minnesota, a hardship for students enrolled at community and technical schools, state universities, even elite private colleges.

“There’s so much shame and stigma associated with being hungry,” said Rebecca Leighton, who coordinates the U’s food pantry through Boynton Health Services. “Students don’t talk about it, so it’s a hidden problem.”

Boynton regularly takes surveys about student wellness, asking about sexual behavior, alcohol and drug use and diet. For the first time, the most recent campus study asked about food insecurity. The results were alarming: 10 percent of U students didn’t have adequate food and 17.5 percent worried about running out.

“Students would rather talk about their STDs than being hungry, but food insecurity is a chronic stressor that makes it difficult for students to function at a high level,” said Dave Golden, Boynton’s director of public health and communication.

While the profile of the typical hungry student is one who comes from a low-income background and is the first in a family to attend college, Golden was surprised by how many middle-class students reported food insecurity.

“These are Minnesota’s best students or they wouldn’t be here. They’re making a big investment in their education and the pressure is on,” Golden said. “Our students are savvy about debt. They have money from jobs, grants and loans, but when they do the budget, it’s easy to underestimate living costs.”

Financial aid has not kept pace with the cost of living — and fees, books and other fixed costs associated with higher education keep going up, according to Sara Goldrick-Rab, author of “Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid and the Betrayal of the American Dream.” She’s researched food insecurity in college students for the past decade.

At the same time, tighter regulations keep most students from qualifying for SNAP, formerly known as food stamps.

The squeeze is tightest on those already living closest to the margins.

“We need a national conversation about nourishment and malnutrition in young adults,” said Goldrick-Rab, a professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple University in Philadelphia. “This should be a scientific discussion without moralizing or class-based assumptions.”

Goldrick-Rab would like to see free and reduced-price meals extended to income-eligible college students, but she holds out little hope for such a program.

“If colleges think this is OK, they haven’t done the math. Young adults are supposed to eat 21 times a week; it’s 28 times for a 19-year-old who’s still growing. Where are the rest of their meals coming from?”

Students helping students

Students standing in line for free groceries at the U tell stories of skipping meals, donating plasma for food money, struggling with concentration because of empty stomachs and scoping out campus events that offer free food.

As awareness of the hunger problem surfaces, some students are stepping up to help.

David Begelman, 21, a neuroscience major from Plymouth, came face-to-face with campus hunger when he moved into Sanford Hall in his freshman year. All U freshmen who live in dorms are required to purchase a meal plan, which ranges in price from $1,875 to $2,230 per semester. Some of his friends could only afford the minimum plan, which is 11 meals a week.

“They weren’t getting enough food and would binge-eat to try to hold themselves,” he said. “I saw how that affected them academically and socially. That was a big shocker.”

Last semester, Begelman initiated the first Swipe Out Hunger donation drive on the Twin Cities campus. It’s part of a national nonprofit founded in 2009 at UCLA, where students donate unused or guest “swipes” on their dining cards to classmates. Swipe Out Hunger now has 36 chapters at colleges nationwide.

This fall, the U collected 2,075 swipes valued at $23,135. The donated meal swipes are loaded onto a card, which Boynton health practitioners give to students they know to be strapped for food.

“It bothers me that this doesn’t really change their circumstances,” said Begelman, “but it will give them a few healthy meals.”

At Carleton College in Northfield, students recently completed their second Swipe Out Hunger donation drive.

“Despite the price tag, Carleton has students on full financial aid packages and this helps them,” said Jonah Kan, 21, a chemistry major who has spearheaded the effort. “About 20 percent of Carleton students who had the opportunity to donate did so. We value economic diversity as part of our student body.”

An obstacle to graduation

This is the first academic year the U is offering free bags of groceries on a monthly basis. Other local colleges jumped in earlier. Metro State University in St. Paul started its food shelf three years ago.

Since then, more than 1,200 students have come to Founders Hall for groceries they can take home as well as grab-and-go items to eat while they’re on campus.

“It’s harder to pass a test if you’re hungry,” said Sue Fust, coordinator of the university’s Student Parent Center.

The average age of students at Metro State is 32. Most students there also are working and often supporting families.

“A degree is a game-changer for our students and they’re willing to make sacrifices to rise,” Fust said. “There are a lot of barriers to their success. We try to ease this one.”

All colleges and universities study their graduation rates and look for ways to reduce the dropout rate and improve the number of students who earn degrees in a timely way.

Goldrick-Rab wants more of them to look at hunger as an obstacle to graduation.

“College is a reliable route out of poverty, but for that path to work, students must escape the conditions of poverty long enough to complete their degrees,” she said.


Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis based freelance broadcaster and writer.