THE BLOG
08/31/2016 07:20 pm ET Updated Sep 01, 2017

Is College Student 'Food Insecurity' Real?

Sadly, the answer is an emphatic yes.

In late June I was flying to Mexico on vacation and opened the Los Angeles Times. I was stunned. The conclusion of this depressing article: in the California State University system with a student body of about 475,000, between 8 to 12 percent were homeless and about double that suffered from food insecurity. What does it mean to be "food insecure"? According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, food insecurity is "a condition of someone who does not have adequate resources to feed themselves."

So on average, in the largest university system in the country, about 50,000 college students are homeless and about 100,000 go hungry?

To add fuel to the fire, in a more recent article the Los Angeles Times reported that 4 in 10 of University of California students "do not have a consistent source of high-quality, nutritious food." The UC system is arguably the best university system in the world, with about 240,000 students. So roughly 100,000 of our best college students are food insecure?

Is this issue relevant only in California? No, it is endemic. The earliest available study on the issue was published about eight years ago at the University of Hawaii. They found that about 20 percent of students there skip meals or did not get proper nutrition because of poverty. A more recent study of food insecurity at Arizona State University put the rate at about 34 percent for first year students.

The American Council on Education's Christopher Nellum, in Fighting Food Insecurity on Campus, defines the overall situation in unmistakable terms:

The numbers are striking. Feeding America, a national nonprofit network of food banks ... estimates that nearly half (49.3 percent) of its clients in college must choose between educational expenses (i.e., tuition, books and supplies, rent) and food annually, and that 21 percent did so for a full 12 months.

To their credit, colleges and universities are taking action. At Woodbury University our "Pops Pantry" meets the need for wholesome food among these disadvantaged students. We are also a member of the College and University Food Bank Alliance (CUFBA), which has about 350 active member institutions. CUFBA's mandate is both clear and painful: "a professional organization consisting of campus-based programs focused on alleviating food insecurity, hunger, and poverty among college and university students in the United States."

Why name it Pop's Pantry? Woodbury University's sixth President, Ray Howard Whitten, was known affectionately on campus as "Pop." His philosophy for the development of students transcended the classroom and this Pantry is in alignment with Pop's desire to provide useful resources to students in pursuit of their academic goals.

As the Chronicle of Higher Education reported last year, "the thrifty student who subsists on ramen noodles has given way to a more troubling portrait: the hungry student who needs help and may not know how to ask for it."

Just as institutions are beginning to act, so students themselves are addressing food insecurity, often creatively. At UCLA, Swipe Out Hunger, a student-run organization, has teamed with some 20 other universities, devising solutions that include arranging for excess money on a student's meal plan to be donated in the form of food to pantries, or applying those funds to food vouchers for students.

And now, lawmakers are beginning to respond as well. Working its way through the California state legislature is the College Student Hunger Relief Act of 2016, a measure that, if enacted, would enable food banks to work with college food pantries and require both public and private colleges to participate in restaurant meals programs in their counties.

So food insecurity is real -- a problem that needs to remain a headline item. Think about the impact this issue is having on the next generation of leaders in our nation. So going back to California: is it acceptable that about 200,000 college students, in the UC and CSU systems, living in the richest state in the nation, have "food insecurity" or exist on a high sodium and high fat diet?

David Steele-Figueredo is President of Woodbury University in Burbank, Calif.