Study finds higher rates of student food insecurity during COVID-19

Infographic showing food insecurity among undergraduate students during COVID-19 pandemic
Joseph Casey/Staff

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About 20% of university students have experienced food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a recent study co-led by the UC Berkeley Center for Studies in Higher Education.

The study, published Aug. 28 by the Student Experience in the Research University Consortium, questioned undergraduate students at nine universities, as well as graduate and professional students from 10 universities, from May 18 to July 20. The survey measured financial hardships related to COVID-19, including food and housing insecurity, mental health and transitions to remote learning. The study’s results suggest that, compared to a previous survey in spring 2019, rates of food insecurity among graduate and professional students increased during the pandemic.

“We knew the pandemic would likely have major ramifications upon students’ finances, especially because so many students had to relocate, lost jobs, and had family members lose jobs,” said study co-author Krista Soria in an email.

According to Soria, rates of food insecurity were significantly higher among underrepresented, marginalized and oppressed students. She added that this included Black, Latinx, American Indian, international, LGBTQ+ and first-generation students, as well as students who are caregivers to adults.

For example, the study found that 58% of low-income undergraduate students reported food insecurity compared to 22% of all undergraduate students.

Soria added that some of these groups are from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and were more susceptible to financial loss. Others, especially LGBTQ+ students, may be dealing with the additional expense of securing independent housing, as they may not feel that they can live safely with their families.

“We have seen, overall, that the pandemic has exacerbated existing disparities among students, further disadvantaging underrepresented, economically disenfranchised, and marginalized students,” Soria said in the email.

Students have had to adjust their budgets to address coronavirus-related economic challenges, such as the loss of wages, moving costs and increases in spending for technology, according to Soria. She added that this likely means students have less money to spend on adequate nutrition.

Soria said in the email that it is important for campuses to address food insecurity during the pandemic with new solutions.

Campus has several resources specific to food security, according to campus spokesperson Adam Ratliff. These include the UC Berkeley Food Pantry, which provides emergency nonperishable food to students, and the campus Food Assistance Program, which provides eligible students with meal points.

Students can also find support at the campus Basic Needs Center, which includes a food pantry and provides nutrition workshops. To address financial hardships caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Ratfliff added, students can explore other local campus support funds by visiting the UC Berkeley COVID-19 Student Relief Funds website.

“The topic of food insecurity is far too important to overlook during the pandemic,” the study states. “We urge institutional leaders to prioritize this issue on their campuses and seek alternative ways of helping students to access affordable, nutritious food.”

Maria Young is a higher education reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @maria_myoung.