There are plenty of stereotypes about college students and their food habits: They’re broke and only eat ramen; they party every night and only consume pizza and shitty beer. But a new study by Temple University and the Wisconsin HOPE Lab paints a more disturbing picture of college students’ relationship with food. According to the report, which was released in April, more than one-third of American students are food insecure, meaning they regularly have trouble accessing or affording nutritious food.
The researchers surveyed 43,000 students at schools across the country, asking them whether or not they identified with statements such as “I couldn’t afford to eat balanced meals” and “I worried about whether my food would run out before I got the money to buy more.” Based on the responses, the researchers determined that 36 percent of survey takers who attended four-year colleges were food insecure. At community colleges that figure was 42 percent.
More troublingly, the report suggests that students from low-income backgrounds, as well as those whose parents aren’t U.S. citizens, may be less likely to regularly eat healthy meals. Half of students who received Pell grants, a form of need-based financial aid, were deemed food insecure based on the survey results.
But despite overwhelming evidence that low-income college students often have trouble accessing nutritious food, some critics are claiming these results are negated by, uh, the freshman 15.
On Wednesday, USA Today opinion columnist James Bovard published an op-ed essentially refuting the premise of the survey — and arguing that college kids can’t possibly be undernourished, because they are statistically proven to be overweight. “Rather than being perpetually famished, 70 percent of college students gain weight during their undergrad years,” he wrote. By way of an explanation, Bovard pointed out that “few students are svelte when they arrive on campus,” citing an Obesity Research study suggesting that high school students are “30 times more likely to be overweight than underweight.”
No one is disputing that some students gain weight in college, or that a growing number of Americans are obese — but there’s no reason to assume that people who are overweight aren’t also severely malnourished. Though 14 percent of the students the Temple/HOPE study surveyed did report losing weight because they couldn’t afford to eat, a growing body of research, compiled here by the Food Research & Action Center, suggests a link between poverty, food insecurity, and obesity. One 2012 study found that people who skip meals to stretch their food budgets often gain weight because of their unbalanced diets. Another found that low-income people are disproportionately exposed to fast food, sugary drinks, and other food products that contribute to obesity.
Angela Odoms-Young, an assistant professor of nutrition at the University of Illinois at Chicago, summed up the problem in a blog post for Feeding America. “To maintain adequate energy intake, many families with limited resources select lower-quality diets, including high-calorie, energy-dense foods,” she wrote. Basically, when you’re working long hours for little pay — or struggling to get by as a college student — it’s easier and cheaper to eat pre-prepared food, or foods that are high in calories but low in necessary nutrients.
But Bovard, who has previously dismissed the concept of food insecurity, seemed unimpressed with the survey’s findings that students who experience it “try to make ends meet in a variety of ways.” Instead, he suggested that students who can’t afford healthy food quit whining and get a job — even though about 70 percent of college students do work while attending school, according to a 2015 Georgetown University study. “Students spend far less time studying than their predecessors,” he quipped. “But expecting students to use free time to get a job to feed themselves is beyond the pale.”
As if that weren’t condescending enough, Bovard also claimed that students who receive financial aid have no reason to be food insecure, since they’re apparently rolling in money. “This study offers no clues on what happened to that largesse — or to the other $100 billion in federal assistance provided to college students in 2016,” he wrote. (He also dismissed the finding that queer students are at a high risk of food insecurity. “Are they too busy cavorting with both genders to eat or what?” Bovard wrote about bisexual students. Okay, dude.)
In addition to being seemingly unaware of that the average college student has a job, it would seem Bovard might benefit from going to google.com and typing in “average college tuition cost,” which the College Board notes is $9,970, for in-state students attending public four-year universities during the 2017-18 school year. This price does not include the cost of books, transportation, housing, or food. Meanwhile, the maximum Pell grant awarded during that school year was $5,920, though most students received less.
Although some universities have meal plans, not all students can afford them. And campus dining halls aren’t open year-round; 40 percent of students with meal plans at two-year colleges were deemed food insecure, the Temple/HOPE study found, as were 26 percent of meal plan-having students at four-year colleges.
Bovard’s solution? That colleges should “offer low-cost meal plans in lieu of the five-star buffets they already serve,” in order to curb the nationwide food insecurity crisis he claimed doesn’t exist. Offering lower-cost (or free) meal plans to low-income students is a great idea, but it does nothing to stave off hunger during spring, summer, and winter breaks, when the dining halls are closed. In other words, it doesn’t solve the larger problem: that students don’t have access to affordable, high-quality food year-round.
Universities are accepting more low-income and first generation students than ever, even as tuitions climb steadily. If students are to secure access to healthy, affordable food year-round, then schools — and not the people who attend them — are going to have to find a way to make that possible, whether it be by increasing financial aid, establishing campus food pantries, or simply offering students guidance on which federal assistance programs they may be eligible for. The bootstraps-style contrarianism exhibited by Bovard and others does nothing more than dismiss the challenges low-income students’ face under the guise of promoting personal responsibility.