Think college students are privileged? Nearly a third are hungry and homeless

Sarah Barrett didn't need a grand study to tell her a bunch of students on Kansas State University's campus had been going without food.

As an assistant dean of students, she had heard enough of them talk about choosing books or housing costs over food to know that the university needed to do something to help its hungry students.

K-State students are not alone. The problem of college students' inability to afford food is common on campuses across the country.

According to a first-of-its-kind survey of two- and four-year private and public schools, 36 percent of students on college campuses in the U.S. do not get enough to eat.

On Wednesday afternoon just after the noon lunch hour, the UMKC Kangaroo Pantry opened its doors to a short line of students needing food. Katie Garey, who manages the pantry, and a student volunteer were busy stuffing plastic bags with nonperishable food items requested by the handful of students who filled out order forms that day.

"We are pretty busy," Garey said. "At the end of the semester, we start recognizing that students no longer have food on their meal plans or maybe their financial aid has run out or they have given up a job so they can study, so they no longer have that income."

And that lost income could also impact housing. Nearly as many of those who are food insecure don't have secure housing. The U.S. Department of Education describes the homeless as "lacking fixed, regular, adequate housing," which includes those living in shelters, hotels, cars, tents or "couch surfing" at friends’ houses.

While it found that 36 percent of university students and nearly half of community college students surveyed fit the category of "housing insecure" in the past year, it also found that 9 percent of university students were fully homeless, as were 12 percent of community college students.

The study led by Temple University Professor Sara Goldrick-Rab and her team at the Wisconsin HOPE Lab speaks to a national trend impacting students in Missouri and Kansas, but only the University of Central Missouri was among the 65 colleges and universities that participated in the survey.

Those examining the national situation don't place the blame on rising college costs alone. Other factors may include inadequate financial aid packages and the fact that today more low-income students have access to college through the help of tuition grants, federal loans and scholarships that don't always pay for food or housing.

There are also a number of international students who don't qualify for federal aid and older students who are trying to go to school while working part-time jobs to care for a family.

Some colleges are unwilling to admit they have students enrolled at their school who don't have permanent housing or who go hungry, the study says.

The study refers to the condition these students find themselves in as being "food insecure." The USDA defines it as not having consistent access to adequate food and being limited by financial challenges.

"A lot of folks tend to associate attending college with a certain amount of privilege, but that is not necessarily true," said Jonathan Pryor, the assistant director of LGBT services at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Pryor also coordinates the campus food pantry, opened in 2015 after university leaders heard repeated complaints from students struggling to afford groceries.

"Mac and cheese every night may not be what's considered adequate nutritious food," Barrett said.

The Washington Post reports that the survey report, out Tuesday, says that one in 10 community college students report having gone an entire day without food. About 6 percent of four-year university students have made the same report.

Experts have long known that kids in elementary, middle and high school who come to class hungry are less likely to perform well academically. The study found the same to be true for college students.

Students who take on the rigors of college study while experiencing basic needs insecurities are clearly committed to school and are trying to work to make ends meet. "But their academics still suffer," the report says. "Among students who reported receiving D’s and F’s in college, more than half were food insecure, with more than 40 percent at the very lowest level of food security."

Education experts say that in many cases, those students end up dropping out.

In 2014, Barrett and some of her colleagues launched a survey of their own at K-State to assess the need for help with food on the Manhattan, Kan., campus. It revealed that 39.4 percent of "students who were experiencing financial hardship also experienced difficulty finding food," Barrett said.

Studies at other universities had similar findings. The University of California found that 40 percent of its students were missing meals, and four universities in Illinois found the number to be 35 percent on their campuses.

The national survey report said: "While university students are more likely than community college students to have access to on-campus housing and meal plans, even these supports do not shield students from these challenges."

Evelyn "Evie" Craig, president and chief executive officer of ReStart, a nonprofit agency that provides services for homeless young people in the Kansas City area, recalled being contacted by colleges to house homeless students who had no home to go to during holidays and campus breaks, when dormitories are shut down.

"We have some 'Leave It to Beaver' notion that because a kid is in college, every kid has a home with a white-picket fence to go to," Craig said.

"In the five-county Kansas City metro area, 6,000 students identify as homeless. That's K-12, but you have to assume that if a student is homeless as a senior in high school, that is not suddenly going to change as they enter college. There is so little support directed at these young adults age 18 to 24."

To help combat the food insecurity problem, universities here began opening food pantries, like the ones at K-State and at UMKC.

"We realized that this supports what has become a growing trend across the country," Pryor said, adding that the UMKC pantry "gets pretty consistent use" during the months school is in session.

Much of the UMKC pantry is stocked with food bought at discount prices from Harvesters. And like at other college food pantries, some of the food comes from donations and food drives held by faculty and student groups.

Even though a fairly sizable number of students share in the predicament, many of them still worry about the stigma attached to needing to get food from a food pantry. So, universities tend to tuck their pantries away in an inconspicuous location to protect their students' privacy. UMKC's Kangaroo Pantry is located in the converted office space in a university building just north of campus.

K-State opened its pantry in 2014, when it hauled shelving in to a computer lab and stocked it with food and toiletries after assessing the school had a real need.

When K-State had asked students whether they ever considered leaving school because of financial needs, more than 50 percent said yes, Barrett said. More recently, more than 90 percent of students who experience some financial struggle said in a subsequent survey that having the food pantry — called the Cat's Cupboard — has helped alleviate some of that financial stress.

University officials at Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville notice a growing number of their students were going hungry and opened a pantry in 2016. Every year more students are using it. In March 2016, 19 students sought help at the pantry. In March 2017, 47 students used the pantry.

"I think there is more need," said Sue Nickerson, who is executive secretary of Student Affairs and coordinator for the Northwest Missouri State pantry. She said a recent assessment at her school showed about 35 percent of students there need help with food or are having to decide between eating and paying bills.

"That should not be a decision our students have to make," Nickerson said.