The Michigan State University Student Food Bank is celebrating 25 years of helping to address an underappreciated impediment to academic success — food insecurity. Lack of reliable access to affordable, nutritious food is common at colleges and universities across the country, a growing problem that can undermine learning.
Founded in 1993, the MSU Student Food Bank was the first in the nation to be operated by students, for students. It serves more than 6,000 students annually, many with families, distributing more than 110,000 pounds of food.
“You can’t learn when you’re hungry,” said Dennis Martell, director of MSU’s Health Promotion Department and staff advisor to the MSU Student Food Bank. “Many people can’t believe hunger is an issue for college students because they assume if you can afford college, you can afford food, but that’s a fallacy. The general public doesn’t realize that only 35 percent of students live on campus with meal plans. It’s mostly the other 65 percent who are food insecure.”
Based on surveys of MSU students, Martell’s group this year estimated that 2,200, or 4.4 percent of the student body, experienced food insecurity that disrupted their eating patterns. Students who were food insecure also were more likely to have a lower grade point average.
“Students are faced with difficult choices every day,” Martell said. “We strongly believe that deciding between spending money on food or spending money on rent or books is not a decision MSU students should be forced to make. Though I’m proud that we’ve helped students for 25 years, my hope is that one day we can close our doors — that we find a way to eliminate students’ food insecurity.”
Gifts to the MSU Student Food Bank can be made online.
The Health Promotion Department is part of Student Health and Wellness, a division of the Office of Health Affairs. The office was created to increase safety and quality practices across all of MSU’s health care services, including student health and wellness, athletic medicine, MSU Health Care and other clinical activities for the Colleges of Medicine, Nursing and Osteopathic Medicine.
Sidebar: Stereotype versus reality
The College and University Food Bank Alliance, of which MSU is a founding member, in 2016 conducted a national study on food insecurity on college campuses. The report, Hunger on Campus, revealed findings that were startling and many that are contrary to the popular stereotype of food insecure students:
- Consistent with prior studies, 48 percent of respondents reported food insecurity in the previous 30 days, including 22 percent with very low levels of food security that qualified them as hungry.
- Food insecurity was more prevalent among students of color. Fifty-seven percent of black or African American students reported food insecurity, compared to 40 percent of non-Hispanic white students.
- Fifty-six percent of first-generation students were food insecure, compared to 45 percent of students who had at least one parent who attended college.
- Sixty-four percent of food-insecure students reported experiencing some type of housing insecurity, such as difficulty paying rent and other bills.
- Problems with food or housing impact students’ success. Of the food-insecure students in the study, 32 percent believed that hunger or housing problems had an impact on their education and 55 percent reported that those problems caused them to not buy a required textbook.
- Fifty-six percent of food-insecure students reported having a paying job. Of those, 38 percent worked 20 hours or more per week.
- Three in four food-insecure students received some form of financial aid. More than half (52 percent) received Pell grants and 37 percent took out student loans during the current academic year.
- Being enrolled in a meal plan with a campus dining hall does not eliminate food insecurity. Among the respondents from four-year colleges, 43 percent of meal plan enrollees still experienced food insecurity.