A federal report released Wednesday by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) says officials must work with states and colleges to help more students get access to government food assistance.
The GAO, an investigative nonpartisan agency that oversees Congress (often referred to as the “congressional watchdog”), researched the subject at the request of four U.S. Senators. It is the first-ever federal government effort to understand the scope of food insecurity on college campuses.
The agency looked at 31 studies on campus food insecurity and found nearly two million students who were potentially eligible for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in 2016 but did not receive the benefits, according to The Washington Post.
The report also found the share of college students struggling to feed themselves adequately ranged from nine percent to over 50 percent, with 22 of the studies estimating rates of food insecurity at more than 30 percent.
Furthermore, the report found 39 percent of all undergraduates at U.S. colleges are at risk of hunger due to low household income.
Why Aren’t Students Getting the Federal Assistance They Qualify For?
One main reason students aren’t receiving the assistance they need, the report found, is widespread confusion over eligibility.
At nine of 14 colleges the GAO contacted, many students and officials had difficulty fully understanding the rules regarding which students qualify for food stamps.
At one school, officials said they didn’t think college students were eligible for the program at all, reports Market Watch.
Officials at three other schools said they would like information from the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), the division of the Department of Agriculture that oversees SNAP, but that targeted information isn’t available.
Experts say several other factors play into the high number of students struggling with food insecurity, including the fact that more low-income students are going to college than ever before and college costs have risen dramatically over the past few decades.
One official interviewed by the GAO said in the past, students at their school had enough financial aid money left over after tuition to pay for rent and food. Now, because tuition is so high, students rarely get a refund after it’s paid.
One student told the GAO that he often goes hungry but doesn’t want to burden his family.
“I don’t tell my family that I’m struggling with food because everyone I know is struggling with money — I don’t want to stress them out,” the student said.
GAO Recommends Policy Changes
To improve access to food assistance, the report’s authors recommend FNS improves information on its website relating to student eligibility.
The authors also suggest FNS and SNAP work more closely to make it easier for eligible students to access food stamps, including sharing information about state SNAP agencies’ approaches to helping eligible students.
For instance, as of Sept. 2018, more than 656 schools had or were in the process of opening food pantries as part of the College and University Food Bank Alliance. The group started with just 12 schools in 2012.
In 2017, UC Irvine opened a 1,800-square-foot food pantry, the largest in the California school system. The pantry includes a kitchenette for student use, cookbooks for students searching for recipe ideas and 15 different seeds for students who may want to do their own farming.
Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor at Temple University who has studied campus food insecurity, says she is encouraged by the report’s advocacy for an agency to work to address the issue.
“A policy response is a far cry from the current response, which is campus food pantries,” she said. “It means increasing the economic self-sufficiency of students so they eat every day rather than just giving them a couple of cans when they’re in an emergency.”
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