‘Breakfast or books?’ Student hunger an issue on many campuses


woman in front of an empty cupboard

March 23, 2016

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - For decades, instant ramen noodles have been a culinary staple in the pantries of thousands of college students across the country.

And as the cost of living continues to rise, institutional belts tighten and more low-income and first-generation students enroll, the stereotype of the penny-wise student who lives by the noodle has given way to a more disturbing picture - the hungry student who needs help and may not know how to ask for it.

According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, the earliest available study of "food insecurity" - a term that refers to people who skip meals or don't get proper nutrition because they can't afford it - among college students was published eight years ago at the University of Hawaii-Manoa. In that study, researchers found that 21 percent of students there struggled with food insecurity.

Studies on other campuses have yielded a range of figures, from 14 percent at the University of Alabama to 59 percent at Western Oregon University.

While the number of Slippery Rock University students suffering through a similar situation is much smaller, the issue still exists.

karla fonner


"On our campus, you're probably looking at a handful - and by that, I mean five or six students - each semester," said Karla Fonner, assistant director and senior case manager, student retention services.

"It's not the biggest issue we face, but it is an issue. Hunger often coincides with other problems that get more attention such as financial instability. Perhaps there has been a tragedy to a loved one that causes a change in a student's status; maybe they become separated or estranged from their parents or guardians; perhaps there's been a job loss and the family is having difficulty making ends meet; or maybe (the student) has made some really bad decisions on their own that's put them in the position they are in."

In the Hawaii-Manoa study, it was found that students who couldn't rely on regular meals also were more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression. Other studies have tied food insecurity to low-income households and unstable housing situations.

Like mental-health issues, hunger is not always easy to notice from the outside, according to Fonner.

"Students are very good at covering up as much as they possibly can," Fonner said. "Those that are affected are usually embarrassed and don't want to ask for help. Sometimes it comes down to whether they use the money they do have to eat, pay rent or purchase a text book and they struggle with knowing what their basic needs are and how do they make the situation work in their favor."

Another part of the problem for students is not knowing where to turn for help, which is where Fonner's office comes in.

"Even if a student can past the pride hurdle," Fonner said, "they don't want to admit they have no idea where to turn for help, what types of questions to ask or how to articulate what they need.

"That's when they need to know that any faculty or staff member who they feel comfortable in communicating with can point them in the right direction. Once my office makes contact, we work with a number of local resources - including food pantries - that can get them what they need, and get them back on track."

That track can include not only a balanced diet, but also proper rest. Without either, a student can be faced with much more than just a growling tummy.

"Hunger issues can lead to a lack of sleep which can then alter one's attention span," said Fonner. "If you start adding those factors up, you can see how quickly the inability to concentrate and pay attention to classwork could pile up."

According to a health survey at the University of Georgia, one in four UGA students indicate that lack of sleep has impacted their academic performance in a negative way via lower grades, missed papers or projects or they had to withdraw from class. Some students rely on staying up most of the night to study, but pulling an all-nighter and cramming at the last minute can actually be counterproductive.

The very qualities a student needs to maximize in order to do well on tests, such as recall, concentration, and alertness, are decreased when one is sleep deprived. Research has shown that students who get six or fewer hours of sleep have a lower GPA than those who get eight or more hours of sleep.

"Not paying attention to what a person's body is telling them, regardless of the issue, can lead to a whole host of compounded issues that can really set up a student for much larger failures," Fonner said.

Cash flow isn't the only culprit when it comes to student hunger, Fonner added, but rather poor decision making about the money they do have, including the purchase of video games, clothing or other non-essentials versus buying groceries.

"We can assist students in prioritizing," said Fonner. "Many of our students are first-time decision makers and that's a lot of pressure. We can help them make the right decisions that will set them up for success. We can teach them about 'wants' versus 'needs,' and show them how to be practical about the next steps they take.

"A burger and fries off the dollar menu may be cheaper, but is it the best choice for your body in the long run? Balancing your checkbook with nutritional value is incredibly important."

Fonner added that students and their parents should understand that the University's teachings go beyond math, science and the arts.

"As an institution of learning," said Fonner, "part of our job is rounding out the entire person. If we are trying to teach them to function as contributing members of society, we need to help enable all areas of learning and understanding, and part of that is empowering them to move themselves forward regardless of the situation they find themselves in.

"A big part of that is knowing that help is here and available. It's not about enabling, it's about learning and understanding, and it's about change and development. It's about teaching (students) how to get what they need, when they need it, in order to be successful.

"They won't be able to do that down the road if we don't show them how now."

MEDIA CONTACT: Robb King | 724.738.2199 | robert.king@sru.edu