04/23/2014 04:23 pm ET Updated Jun 23, 2014

Feed Our Student-Athletes (and Their Classmates, Too)

Sports fans reacted with shock earlier this month when Shabazz Napier, a star of the University of Connecticut's national champion men's basketball team, told reporters that he wasn't always getting enough to eat.

"Sometimes, there's hungry nights where I'm not able to eat, but I still gotta play up to my capabilities," he said.

The notion that a player could go hungry seemed galling given that the university has a $1.05 billion overall budget, that its sports teams generate more than $60 million in revenue for the school, and that its men's basketball coach, Kevin Ollie, earns more than a million dollars annually. Napier's announcement stoked national debate over whether star college athletes should be unionized or otherwise compensated in order to receive a cut of the vast wealth generated by their sweat and toil. Even though Napier is on the university's meal plan, night-time practice sessions for him and other elite athletes often end after school dining rooms are closed. Summer practices also present problems for some athletes.

The NCAA reacted swiftly to Napier's complaint, announcing a new rule that would allow universities to provide Division I athletes with unlimited meals and snacks. But the organization failed to discern, much less fix, the broader problem.

Thanks to the NCAA, celebrity student athletes will likely no longer go hungry, but countless other low-income college students will continue to face hunger or food insecurity.

The Washington Post recently reported that the rising costs of education have led to increasing numbers of college students battling hunger. College is tough enough for most, but malnourished students have an even harder time focusing on their studies, maintaining their health, and obtaining degrees. There is no definitive data on how many college students suffer from hunger, but nationwide, 121 college campuses now operate food pantries, up from only four in 2008.

At the University of North Carolina, where the basketball coach earns two million dollars per year (nearly four times what the university president makes), student leaders are working to start a food pantry. One sophomore grew up in a household that survived on meals from a community food pantry, according to a recent story in the Daily Tar Heel. "Now she's a full-time student, working two part-time jobs and struggling to keep food on the table. She supports herself financially, but even with two jobs, by the end of the two-week pay period, she's still struggling for money to buy food. 'It's really stressful to think about when I'm going to be able to eat,' she said."

The federal minimum wage is $7.25 hourly and only a handful of states have slightly higher levels. If a full-time student were somehow able to also work 20 hours per week in a minimum-wage job, he or she would earn less than $8,000 a year. Though the federal government funds 60 percent of work-study job wages, such positions typically pay not much higher than the minimum wage. Even if low-income students receive free tuition through scholarships, they still often come up short trying to pay for books, housing, and food. Relatively few financial aid packages pay for all or even some of the cost of campus meal plans.

Most full-time students are legally ineligible for SNAP (formerly called food stamp) benefits, and Congress and President Obama just made it even harder for them to obtain them. The newly enacted Farm Bill limits SNAP mostly to students in technical or remedial classes. These rules reflect a societal double standard. We generally assume that upper and middle-class students are working hard at their studies, but we enact policies based on the assumption that college for low-income students is somehow a way to dodge real work.

While campus food pantries can fill in some gaps, as do community food pantries aimed at families, neither can possibly be the long-term solution to U.S. hunger. By their nature, pantries can only provide a few days' worth of food, often only once per month, and offer recipients only food that someone else chose for them, regardless of their individual nutritional needs.

Rather than patching together solutions and feeding athletes while leaving others on campus hungry, the nation should make a serious commitment to eradicating domestic hunger by creating more jobs, raising wages, and ensuring an adequate government nutrition safety net. It's a problem we know how to solve.

Eliminating student hunger is a great place to start, and it could be accomplished with far less money than we spend now on sports arenas and millionaire college coaches.

To begin, Congress should support President Obama's proposal to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour. Federal law should require that work-study jobs pay no less than $15 per hour. It should also make it easier for full-time students to receive SNAP.

Finally, meal plans should be free for all limited-income students receiving financial aid. That would be one big way of combating the rising costs of education for low- and middle-income families. Some higher education leaders might whine that they can't afford to give away food. But if they're as committed to learning as they are to winning basketball and football games, colleges and universities can't afford to let their students go hungry.

Joel Berg is the executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger.

Jonathan Eig is the author of Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig and other books.