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Food Insecurity on College Campuses: From Ramen to Resources

Sometimes knowing where your next meal is coming from can be a worry. In this blog post, we discuss various strategies and resources to help with food insecurities.

A plate with a blue rim with a small piece of food on it and a fork sit on a wood table
Carly Hillburn, Dietetic Intern, 2019-2020
Monday, January 23, 2023

Let’s talk about Ramen…

As college students, many of us have been “there.” Or more specifically, many of us have been so low on money or resources where a cheap 25 cent meal of Ramen noodles was all we could afford for dinner. It’s a common joke surrounding college life. Some might even say surviving on Ramen noodles is a rite of passage related to going through college and becoming independent adults. When I first graduated from high school, I received two “College Survival” gifts and both included several packets of Ramen noodles in a variety of flavors. I laughed and appreciated the joke because I was going to college. I was finally going to be able to be independent, survive on my own, and find my own way moving forward. I expected to be low on money and to survive on a few meals of Ramen. After all, I thought that was what “poor college students” did.

Chopsticks pull ramen noodles from a bowl

While this does seem to be a common stereotype about college students, the underlying issue of food insecurity has recently been highlighted as a huge concern on college campuses. In the United States, it has been estimated that 30-50% of college students experience food insecurity. Food insecurity can be defined as a social and economic condition where access to food is limited or uncertain. Exposure to food insecurity can have several negative implications for health and academic success. 

If you are wondering if you are food insecure, here are some phrases to consider:

  • You can't afford to buy healthy food to eat
  • You often worry about having money to purchase enough food
  • You can't afford food at the end of the month when you're waiting for your next paycheck
  • You can only afford to spend a very small amount of money each week on food
  • You skip meals or eat snacks for meals because you can't afford more
  • You choose between paying bills and buying enough food

If you identify with any of these phrases you might be experiencing food insecurity.

Why is this a big deal?

Let’s point out that 30-50% of college students experiencing food insecurity is large percentage. In 2019, there were approximately 20 million students attending college. This means that 6 – 10 million students would experience food insecurity that year. To put this in perspective, the national average of households across the United States experiencing food insecurity is around 11%. With the national average for college students experiencing food insecurity at 30-50%, the prevalence of food insecurity is 3-5 times higher for college students!

So why are college students more vulnerable to food insecurity and experiencing it at much higher rates?

Research indicates that some of this might have to do with the transition to independence from parents. With this new independence, students are also responsible for their finances and supporting themselves. But when you consider the costs of college and the amount of time it takes to attend classes, do homework, and study, there isn’t always a lot of time left for making an income. Sure, college students can pick up a part-time job, but most of those are not high-paying jobs.

Researchers have found that students who were living away from their parents' homes were at an increased risk for food insecurity. Furthermore, research has shown that students who are financially independent, meaning they no longer receive monetary support from their parents, experienced food insecurity at even higher rates. This really boils down to the idea that college students are not always secure financially, especially if they are no longer receiving support from their parents, and this financial insecurity can affect students’ ability to purchase food and other necessary resources.

Someone takes a box of food items

Negative Impacts of Food Insecurity

This is also important to address because food insecurity has also been associated with negative implications for health. For instance, students who had experienced food insecurity were less likely to choose nutritious food options and were more likely to skip meals throughout the day. Additionally, students experiencing food insecurity were less likely to participate in physical activity, and social events with their peers. Finally, students experiencing food insecurity were also more likely to have higher levels of stress, anxiety, and depression.   

In addition to the negative health impacts, food insecurity also had negative implications for academics. One study found students who experienced food insecurity had, on average, more difficulties focusing on class and had lower GPAs, lower class attendance, and lower graduation rates than their peers who were considered food secure.

Campus Response and Resources

While the problem of food insecurity on college campuses was only recently brought to light, universities have begun to tackle the challenge to provide resources for students in need. Some potential solutions and resources include creating food pantries that are easily accessible on college campuses. These pantries are often completely free for students with a valid ID card. Some additional solutions have been campus meal share programs where students can donate or share meal plans with other students.

College students study outdoors

Resources at UNL

Husker Pantry

At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the Husker Pantry is a resource for students needing supplies for food and shelter. The Husker Pantry is located on the first floor of the University Health Center. They provide shelf-stable food items, hygiene products, and school supplies to current students.  You can read more about how to use their services, donate, or volunteer here:

Big Red Resilience

Big Red Resilience and Wellbeing offers support to students. They offer student focused events and counseling sessions that can help students focus on wellbeing in every aspect of their UNL experience.  Find out more about the resources they offer here:

Food insecurity on college campuses essentially creates a perfect storm that can detract from students’ success and health. For a young adult being on their own in the world for the first time – that is a lot of negativity that does not provide a solid foundation for the transition into adulthood. While Ramen is fine to have at meals occasionally, the goal should be for students to feel like they do not need to rely on cheap meal options with low nutritional value and to help students build healthy habits that can set them up for success.


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