When a fire destroyed an off-campus apartment complex near Ohio University last year, Dr. Jason Pina, vice president for student affairs, was pleased to see how the university community responded: opening their doors to displaced residents and offering clothing and food donations that far exceeded the need.
He was surprised, though, by how quickly the excess food disappeared when it was placed in the university’s student center for anyone who needed it.
“We ran out of food so quickly your head would spin,” he said.
It was a stark reminder about food insecurity, Pina said, not just in the Athens community but also among college students. Since then, Ohio University has taken a number of steps to help alleviate the problem of people lacking consistent access to food, including creating a permanent food bank in its student center and planning a second one.
Last month, the school was approved to accept federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits at Jefferson Marketplace, an on-campus grocery. Anyone who qualifies for SNAP benefits — students and community members alike — is welcome to use them at the market.
No other public four-year colleges or universities in Ohio that returned messages from The Dispatch said they accept SNAP benefits on campus. Many, though, have created student food pantries in the past few years as the issue of food insecurity has become more prominent.
The 2016 Hunger on Campus report found that 20 percent of students at four-year schools qualified as having “very low food security.” That number was even worse among community-college students, 25 percent of whom had very low food security, according to the same report.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture measures food security along a scale from “high food security” to “very low food security,” with three categories to indicate levels of food insecurity.
“Moderate food security” describes households with some level of concern or challenge in accessing quality food without significant decreases in quality, variety, or quantity.
“Low food security” describes households where quality, variety, and desirability are negatively impacted, but quantity is not.
“Very low food security” indicates decreases in all areas (quality, variety, desirability, quantity) as well as disrupted eating patterns due to inability to access adequate food.
Among food-insecure college students, the Hunger on Campus report said about 25 percent reported using available SNAP benefits, formerly known as food stamps.
The College and University Food Bank Alliance is an organization of campus-based programs focused on food insecurity, hunger and poverty among college students. The organization has more than 590 registered campus programs or food banks nationwide, including 21 in Ohio.
Food insecurity has gotten more attention recently, said alliance founder Clare Cady.
“A lot of people, at the tail end of the recession, were really struggling,” Cady said. “A lot of campuses became aware of this, and, as a result, they started developing programs.”
As the cost of attending college continues to rise, so does food insecurity among students, she said.
At Ohio State University, a student financial-wellness survey in 2014 found that 15 percent of students reported low food security.
“Nobody kind of realizes the extent of the issue on campus,” said Thomas Rosenberger, a recent Ohio State graduate who helped launch a student food pantry on campus in 2016. “Part of that is also we have this idea in our mind of a college student that eats ramen (noodles) for every meal as just being a normal thing.”
College officials say some students might be at higher risk for food insecurity because they come from a low-income background, they have a family to support or they are first-generation college students.
Through recent retention efforts, Ohio University has surveyed 500 first-year, first-generation college students. Among the respondents, 48 percent said that at some point they were food insecure or going hungry, said Loralyn Taylor, OU’s director of analytics for university student-success initiatives.
“That was very concerning for us, because these are students that are required to be on campus, and they have to have a meal plan,” Taylor said. “These basic-needs issues should not ever prevent the student from completing their degree.”
Ohio University has no data on how many of its students are eligible for SNAP benefits, Pina said, but the school is working to let students know they might be.
“Our students, like many adults, are making choices every day,” Pina said, “We have many students who have the grades and the aptitude to do quite well in college … but they don’t always have the financial wherewithal to afford the total cost of being away from home and living on their own.”