Digest No. 07 - January 2020

Student Hunger at Private Institutions

Allen, C. C., and N. F. Alleman. 2019. “A Private Struggle at a Private Institution: Effects of Student Hunger on Social and Academic Experiences.” Journal of College Student Development 60 (1): 52–69.


“I guess it’s changed my academic life because if I wasn’t worrying about where I was going to get food, and if it was going to be healthy, and if I had stuff to live off of where I didn’t have [to] work, then I would be able to study more” (p. 59). This quotation reflects the central thesis of this exploratory, qualitative study that examines food insecurity as a reason for disruptions in students’ social and academic experiences at an unnamed, affluent, private institution. Findings showed that some students in this selective university were food-insecure and that this problem interfered with students’ academic trajectories (namely, students who had to work longer hours could not find the time needed to study and perform their best in class) and social experiences (that is, students selected social experiences based more on free food options than actual interest).


The authors use the definition by Coleman-Jensen, et al. (2016) of food insecurity as a condition that exists when individuals do not have “access to enough food for an active, healthy life.” Also relying on the work of Broton, Frank, and Goldrick-Rab (2014), the authors discuss food insecurity on college campuses as a particularly challenging and often invisible problem given the shame and stigma often associated with poverty.

Of particular interest, the authors chose a university that was “selective, [and] normatively affluent” (p. 56) in order to challenge the assumption that food insecurity is often linked only to students from low-income families who attend community colleges or public institutions. For this study, selectivity was defined “simply as the difference between the number of students who apply and the number who are accepted” (p. 57). The institution where the study takes place had an overall acceptance rate of 40 percent and reported a median family income of $130,000; 15 percent of its total enrollment consisted of Pell-eligible students.

The students selected for the study were screened based on their availability to participate and on their experiences with food insecurity. Appropriate to phenomenological approaches to inquiry, the authors selected ten students who “had experienced the most severe level of food insecurity” (p. 57) and interviewed each for one to three hours. Students were asked about their “food experiences as children, college choice perceptions and processes, academic experiences, how they spent their time outside of class, experiences with food scarcity, strategies for managing food scarcity, sources of support, insights or lessons gained from their food insecurity experiences, and their recommendations for institutional solutions” (p. 57). In terms of academic experiences, findings suggested that these food-insecure students remained highly committed to their progress as well as that certain campus resources (for example, plentiful free tutoring opportunities) helped them succeed in the face of food uncertainties. Across the interviews, students noted that time spent worrying about food was time taken away from their studies. Academic progress was disrupted by students needing to take semesters off to work, taking courses at cheaper community colleges, and changing majors to those that required less out-of-classroom time.

Students acknowledged the help that came with being enrolled at a well-resourced institution, specifically citing faculty members as a critical source of mentorship, confidentiality, and advocacy. They provided these students with the navigational and emotional support often needed to persist. Not only did faculty members help students understand how to navigate the culture of the institution successfully, they also served as confidantes—frequently they were the only ones on campus with knowledge of the students’ struggles with food insecurities. Unfortunately, the study does not report the students’ experiences with institutional support such as food pantries; however, the nature of the interviews suggests that many of these students attempted to conceal their struggles with food insecurity from the campus community.

Turning to social experiences, most students chose to conceal their struggles rather than share them with peers. These students valued social events and activities with peers, just not the price tag often associated with participation; as one student noted, “It really does impact your social life….Especially with the sorority. To them it was $5, $7, at [a local fast food restaurant]…or stuff like that…Food is how sometimes people bond. It’s where they socialize…I couldn’t do that” (p.62). Finally, many of these students were forced to choose work over friendship. Taking on more work hours meant sacrificing the time needed to develop meaningful friendships with their peers.


The problem of food insecurities, as explored in this study, is not limited to public colleges and universities. Students who experience it often need to manage the social stigmatization that comes with combating stereotypical messages about poverty, and they are at heightened risk when enrolled at institutions—including private, selective institutions such as the one in this study—where affluence is embraced as a cultural value, as a symbol of belonging, and as a pathway to success. What can private institutions do to counteract these cultural stereotypes? How can they sensitize the campus community to the realities of food-insecure students?

Faculty members need to be aware of food insecurity as a pressing issue for some of their students and be equipped with information on resources to help students with food insecurities. How can faculty members be educated that food insecurities exist even at selective, private institutions? How can they be informed regarding which institutional, local, and federal resources are in place to help students deal with these crises?

Turning to student life, time seems to be an ubiquitous source of stress for food-insecure students. Time spent managing food insecurities affected their choices related to work, social engagement, and selection of major, to name a few. Recognizing the reality that students dealing with this issue are making a broad array of academic and social choices dependent on limited time left over after managing it, a first step may be for institutional stakeholders to consider what can be done to help these students maximize the time they do have. As one example, institutional stakeholders may wish to consider suggestions from authors such as Goldrick-Rab (2016), who recommends that advisors, faculty members, and student affairs educators be open to scheduling demands of food-insecure students because these students manage time differently. These students may take courses in the morning to prevent sitting through class hungry, avoid studying late at night because hunger prevents them from concentrating, and seek out free on-campus events that offer food.

Given the change in student demographics with larger numbers of lower-income students enrolling in college, it is increasingly likely that many colleges and universities—both public and private—will encounter more students with food insecurities. Institutional leaders may need to devote more attention to and support for students with these needs.

About the Authors


Cara Cliburn Allen is a doctoral candidate in higher education studies and leadership at Baylor University.

Nathan F. Alleman is associate professor of educational leadership at Baylor University.

Literature Readers May Wish to Consult

Broton, K., V. Frank, and S. Goldrick-Rab. 2014. “Safety, Security, and College Attainment: An Investigation of Undergraduates’ Basic Needs and Institutional Response.” Wisconsin Hope Lab. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association for Public Policy and Management, October. 1–40.

Coleman-Jensen, A., C. Gregory, and M. Rabbitt. 2016. “Definitions of Food Security.” Food Security in the U.S. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Government Accountability Office. 2018. Food Insecurity: Better Information Could Help Eligible College Students Access Federal Food Assistance Benefits. (GAO Publication No. 19-95). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Mullainathan, S., and E. Shafir. 2010. Scarcity. New York: Picador.