New Worry for College Students: Food Insecurity

It's not just the Freshman 15: college students' eating issues also include malnutrition

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For most college students, eating problems stem from having too much food (albeit unhealthy) around. But a new study suggests that a higher than expected percentage of them might not be eating enough because they can’t afford it.

The research, published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior found that 59% of college students at a university in Oregon were classified as food insecure at some point during the last school year. That means they were not able to eat nutritious, safe foods consistently. A 2012 USDA study found that about 14.5% of American households were food insecure at some point during 2012, so the rate among the college students was nearly four times higher.

(MORE: Hungry in America: Documentary Exposes the Growing Problem of Starvation Amid Plenty)

The researchers, for example, asked the students whether they were able to afford balanced meals in the last month. “Sixty two percent of the students reported they couldn’t afford balanced meals,” says lead study author Megan Patton-Lopez, an epidemiologist at Benton County Health Services in Oregon. “The quality of their diet is being impacted. It appears that many of the students are struggling to buy the healthy foods like fruits and vegetables and lean meats and this could affect their weight, although our study cannot confirm that.”

There may be several reasons why undergraduates today are particularly vulnerable to such food instability, she and her colleagues say. The rising cost of tuition at many schools, and the high cost of living expenses certainly put a burden on students’ finances. Even with one or more jobs, these demands may mean that students put a low priority on healthy foods. They may also be inexperienced at budgeting for their basic needs. And since most college students are not eligible for food stamps, nutritious meals may be even further out of reach. Also contributing to the high percentage could be the changing demographic of college students; more first generation children of immigrants as well as those from lower income groups who need financial aid are attending. While the growing pool of students is a positive trend, the study authors say administrators need to be aware of some of the financial strains these students face, and find ways to address potential hunger and malnutrition issues that could hinder their ability to succeed. Studies have linked food insecurity to depression and poor academic performance.

Study author Daniel López-Cevallos, an associate director of research with the Center for Latino/a Studies and Engagement at Oregon State University, says at first his team was surprised by the high number of students who weren’t eating enough, but realized after additional research that it’s a growing problem. “As we looked into past studies and experiences we learned that several colleges/universities across the country now offer food pantries on campus for students as well as community members,” says López-Cevallos in an email to TIME. “This signals that other campuses are seeing a need to provide such emergency food supplies.”

López-Cevallos acknowledges that his study involved a small number of students — 354 — attending Western Oregon State University, a mid-sized public university, and that it’s not clear how representative this campus is of U.S. college students. But the findings do highlight that for some schools, perhaps the smaller universities that have a higher percentage of students on financial aid, addressing students’ eating needs, not to mention their nutritional ones, should become a priority.