Feeding the Future: Addressing Food Insecurity on College Campuses

Handsome serious black European male student busy learning lessons during lunch at cafe, sitting at table with food and textbooks, making notes, writing down new words preparing for Spanish class

This blog was written in collaboration with Swipe Out Hunger, which is a national nonprofit at the forefront of ending college student hunger.  Join the anti-hunger movement by supporting their work or joining their campus partner network!

Every fall, Trellis Strategies conducts its annual Student Financial Wellness Survey (SFWS). Since starting the survey in 2018, the Trellis research team has been honored to amplify the voices of over 260,000 students. In the latest implementation (2023), we collected responses from 62,367 undergraduate students at 142 colleges and universities across 25 states.

These findings reveal the financial realities of the modern student and provide key insights into their food security, awareness/utilization of resources, and mental health:

Nearly half of the students who responded to the survey experienced food insecurity.

Food insecurity, the limited or uncertain access to nutritious and adequate food, is associated with poorer health, a higher likelihood of chronic illness, and negative academic outcomes – including a lower GPA, difficulty concentrating, and increased course failure rate. The Fall 2023 SFWS found that 45% of surveyed students experienced low (22%) or very low (23%) food security. Respondents experiencing food insecurity were more likely to be a first-generation student, financially independent, or self-identify as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community.

    Around one in five respondents had visited a food pantry in 2023, while other students were unaware of food pantries offered by their institution.

    122 out of the 142 participating institutions had at least one food pantry available to students. Of those 122 schools, we found that 47% of students were aware of the valuable resource, but 53% either did not know of the food pantry (50%) or indicated, incorrectly, that their campus did not have one (3%). Of all survey respondents, 15% had visited at least one on- or off-campus food pantry during the year, with 70% using the food pantry at their institution at least once.

      Food insecurity was significantly associated with poor mental health among survey respondents.

      Mental wellness is essential for college students’ health, academic performance, and social life. Unfortunately, students facing challenges meeting their basic needs are more at risk of experiencing psychological distress. In fact, 45% of students experiencing food insecurity were likely feeling a major depressive disorder at the time of the survey. Anxiety, the most common mental health concern among college students, was reported by 57% of students with low or very low food security– compared to 33% of peers who had food security. More than a quarter of students experiencing food insecurity were not able to stop or control their worrying (28%) or felt anxious (30%) nearly every day in the prior 14 days. 

      Too many students across the country struggle with food insecurity and related issues that can limit their academic success. Now more than ever, we need to raise awareness of campus resources that can help students meet their basic needs. Organizations like Swipe Out Hunger can help. With a network of nearly 800 campuses across the country, Swipe Out Hunger connects anti-hunger leaders from school to school, increases resources by distributing grants and in-kind products, and provides educational tools informed by students. Swipe’s annual Campus Leader Survey captured campus leaders’ proactive approach and holistic dedication to supporting all students’ needs through comprehensive support systems.

      Institutions have established food pantries and other programs to address food insecurity among their student body. While these pantries help mitigate barriers to accessing food and other basic needs resources, they often face limitations in infrastructure and sustainability. Swipe Out Hunger encourages policy solutions to stabilize the necessary campus response to hunger.

      By understanding the relationships between the challenges college students face and promoting food security programs, we can support students in their aspirations. Learn more about these findings and other insights from Trellis Strategies’ Student Financial Wellness Survey.

      Allyson Cornett, CPH, MPH, serves as a Research Manager at Trellis Strategies. Having personally experienced food and housing insecurity as a student, Allyson is dedicated to leveraging research and data to amplify student voices and develop sustainable solutions to the college hunger crisis.