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Food Scarcity and Housing Insecurity on Campuses


During a recent CITI Program podcast, Mary Haskett, PhD, a professor in the Department of Psychology at North Carolina State University (NC State), weighed in on the issues of food scarcity and housing insecurity on campuses, particularly as they affect many U.S. campus communities. Like many systemic issues, socio-economic vulnerability is rich with complexities.

When asked about how the nation is responding to this crisis, Dr. Haskett, stated the responses are highly variable across the country. As they address these challenges, she highlights the states that have successfully incorporated additional funding and amended legislation to help students gain access to assistance. She also pointed out that many campuses are hosting food pantries and opportunities to offset burdens placed on homeless and other students emerging from unstable home environments.

The narrative surrounding these issues tends to highlight families with children under 18; however, we know that college-aged students (18+) are equally, if not more, affected by food and housing instability. Mary Haskett, PhD, and other experts understand the link between poverty and college-accompanied food scarcity and housing insecurity, citing low-income as a primary contribution factor.

Exacerbated by the COVID Pandemic, we are now seeing about 39% of college undergraduates identify as low-income and living on an extremely limited budget. [1] With insufficient financial resources, allocating enough resources for food and housing costs adds another layer of additional stressors to these affected students. As a matter of assessment, we can pose the obvious questions to better understand the root causes and any workable solutions:

  1. FAFSA: Does it assist with non-tuition type expenses? Is it even enough? Is there a problem qualifying?
  2. Family Obligations: How do we assist in complex situations where the student is responsible for assisting with household expenses?
  3. Students with Children: Are there opportunities to subsidy young families to facilitate college enrollment and completion for the heads of household?
  4. Is there an identification biomarker system available to better help students who fall through the cracks and aren’t readily aware of any available programs?
  5. Is there bias involved in measuring food and housing insecurity in the U.S.?
  6. Do food programs cover school breaks, weekends, summer programs, and extracurricular activities such as sports nutrition?
  7. Is there a program to address the mental health components (shame and trauma) that arise with food and housing insecurities?

These all questions many of us have posed regarding college-aged poverty. Let us now consider what is being done and what is not being done. The goal is to capture insight into an ongoing, systemic problem in our educational system and relay some resources that may help.

Strategizing to Solve the Issues that Contribute to College Student Homelessness

Food, housing, and basic needs instability among college students is correlated with less participation in academic activities, poor attendance, poor performance, and higher drop-out rates. Students struggling with stable housing find it impossible to continue adhering to class standards, making it difficult to complete and gain credit. [2,3]

Poverty Measurement Tools: Are they Adequate?

As mentioned, the metrics used to determine financial hardship and funding criteria for college-age students include administering food insecurity surveys and their results issued by the USDA. Overcoming the gaps with survey tools is a conundrum as the potential for underestimating food insecurity comes into question by studies and analytical methods dispelling the accuracy and effectiveness of the survey models. [2,3]

Though the USDA does offer surveys for Second English Language students, and other atypical housing situations within the same household. However, the potential for inaccurate understanding/reporting flaws are notable. Therefore, experts conclude that the survey models might not be the best barometer as a standalone method for identifying food and housing inequities. [2,3]

A report funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation cited information that a great deal of poverty data collected is achieved by analyzing free lunch and reduced price lunch correlative data as a measurement tool. Unfortunately, this does not address every household member or non-school age children, therefore maybe we need additional tools to determine at-risk student populations.

Food and Financial Literacy for College-Aged Adults: Are Existing Learning Modules Helping?

For many students, campus housing is their first independent living experience. Learning skills like self-moderation, budgeting, and healthy meal preparation may be altogether foreign to young adults. Accompanied with the added pressures of navigating collegiate life, it can be not only overwhelming, but also equate to poor food and financial habits. We know from experts that the financial literacy component is a major factor in helping students achieve success in these areas. [4] Adding more fuel to an out-of-control fire, students are taking out loans and emerging with massive debt forcing them to figure out how to pay it off post-graduation.

Top Concerns and Corrective Actions

Students become quickly knocked-off balance when attempting to work and achieve educational benchmarks.

    • What’s Being Done:
      • Many campuses are embracing online learning models made possible with technological advances. [7]
      • Colleges are creating new ways to satisfy degree requirements by applying job-related competencies towards college credits. [7]

Many low-income students are also responsible for providing for their families in a myriad of ways; financial, caregiving, meals, and housekeeping. As a result, this leaves little room for buying books, supplies, food, transportation expenses and the threat of homelessness.

    • What’s Being Done:
      • Campus resources are the key to helping alleviate the burden for this sector of vulnerable college-students. Getting them connected to adjunctive programs that assist with food and breast milk costs such as WIC, SNAP, or TRIO, in addition to any child-care options can help bridge those gaps. Congress revamped eligibility for SNAP benefits to sustain the estimated 3 million low-income college students as a corrective response to the Pandemic. However, as of this February 2023, the emergency aid is ending and hopefully Congress will continue to extend assistance to young adults in academic settings. [5]
      • Working in tandem with advocacy programs such as The Educational Trust may also help identify areas of need and marry them with available resources.

FAFSA qualifying errors result in students receiving less than ample aid to make ends meet; The result is drop-out rates; student homelessness, and food scarcity. FAFSA workshops are available as are financial literacy programs, however participation among college students is low.

    • What’s Being Done:
      • Financial Aid workshops are instrumental in avoiding paperwork errors or other missteps in how questions are answered. Working together with the campus liaisons for exploring student aid and housing is necessary when mitigating the potential for award delays.
      • Supplemental programs are available but require consistent action to help gain access to these programs. Unfortunately, this deters many students from following through on the ability to get the assistance they need for food and housing.
      • Capturing students before they begin the collegiate enrollment process and incentivizing them to attend may help boost the number of eligible students.

The National Institute Alliance for Mental Health suggests the chronic stress pattern created by massive student debt and unsustainable wages ties in closely with the rate of depressive episodes and suicide ideation among college students. [5] The cost of an education is said to have doubled since the 1980’s creating an undertow of students struggling to make ends meet. [5]

With the evidence presented, we may see more mental-based telehealth offered in conjunction with in-person on-campus counseling. 71% of students answered they would accept this form of help if offered to them. [9]

Research places the total amount of outstanding student debt  at approximately $1.7 trillion and post-graduate debt at approximately $27,975 per student. [8]


Resolving socioeconomic issues such as food scarcity and housing insecurity may always be a work in progress. Many experts consider that college students that emerge from instability continue that pattern of struggle as they enter the higher education realm. The answers may rest in early-intervention at the high-school level before the college enrollment process gets underway.

A study in North Carolina details methods of disrupting the cascade of poverty in education by amending policies, outreach programs, and providing additional resources along with comprehensive staff training. [10] We can only hope that more states and counties will apply the methodology needed to make sure that all student populations are accurately represented.


  2. Glantsman, O., Swanson, H. L., Carroll, J. T., Zinter, K. E., Lancaster, K. M., & Berardi, L. (2022). Risk of food and housing insecurity among college students during the COVID‐19 pandemic. Journal of Community Psychology, 50(6), 2726-2745.
  10. Oakes, J., Cookson, P., George, J., Levin, S., Carver-Thomas, D., Frelow, F., & Berry, B. (2021). Adequate and equitable education in high-poverty schools: Barriers and opportunities in North Carolina. Learning Policy Institute.