Impact of Food and Housing Insecurity on College Students

Food and housing insecurity can cause mental and physical health issues for college students. Awareness and resources can help them get the support they need.

Written by Allison Scott

Food Insecurity and Housing Insecurity

Having a roof overhead and food on the table is not always a guarantee for some students. Housing and food insecurity—defined as the inability to regularly have a place to live and food to eat—is a widespread problem in the United States and potentially influences all areas of life. In fact, in a pre-pandemic world, an estimated 30 percent of college students were considered food insecure at some point in their college years. On a larger scale, roughly 10.5 percent of people in the United States were experiencing food insecurity in 2019, which means nearly 35 million people were affected. Unfortunately, those numbers are likely to grow as the cost of living rises nearly everywhere. However, there are ways for college students to improve their situations and avoid housing insecurity and food insecurity through resources such as government programs, university help, and more.

What Causes Food Insecurity?

Before discussing how to help reduce food insecurity, it is important to explore why it exists. Food insecurity can be caused by the following:

  • Food Deserts: Lack of access to food is a major factor in whether or not someone experiences food insecurity. Food deserts are areas where people cannot conveniently purchase food, partially because there are no nearby supermarkets. They disproportionately impact areas with small populations, regions with lower education levels and incomes, and those with high unemployment rates.
  • Poverty: Living below the poverty line is another factor that could make finding food at affordable rates much more challenging. Furthermore, poverty can persist in a family for generations; individuals who grew up in families living below the poverty line are more likely to experience poverty themselves, due to its cyclical nature. The 2022 U.S. government's official poverty guidelines for some family sizes are listed below:
    • Households of one making $13,590 or less
    • Households of two making $18,310 or less
    • Households of three making $23,030 or less
    • Households of four making $27,750 or less
    • Households of five making $32,470 or less
  • Systemic Racism: Food access also ties into bigger social issues, like systemic racism. People of color are disproportionately impacted by food insecurity; inequitable policies create barriers to employment and educational opportunities, economic mobility, health care, and critical infrastructure, making it harder to maintain food security.
  • High Cost of Living: Something that impacts everyone is when the cost of living goes up. When something that used to cost $5 is now marked up to $7, individuals who already live paycheck to paycheck may not be able to maintain their lifestyle. This leads to food insecurity because those people may be unable to afford what they once had or are forced to cut costs, like groceries, to afford rent increases or transportation needs.

What Causes Housing Insecurity?

Housing insecurity, like food insecurity, impacts millions in the United States alone. When there are not enough places for people to live in a geographic area—or the cost of living in the available homes, condos, or apartments is too high for local people to afford—there is housing insecurity.

Many factors influence a person and their experience with housing insecurity, but a few of the major causes are:

  • Cost of Living: Just like with food, not being able to afford rent or having to choose between secure shelter or consistent meals puts people in an impossible situation. When rent doubles and average income either goes up slightly or does not change, it becomes increasingly difficult to manage bills.
  • Abusive Relationships: For some, an unhealthy relationship dynamic can lead to housing insecurity. Most often, this happens when an abusive partner controls all financial elements of the household, which leaves the person being abused with few options.
  • Difficulties with Rentals: Sometimes, the fees associated with renting a place of residence combined with high rent costs and inflation are unmanageable. However, in a competitive housing market where homes are scarcer than before, it is challenging to find an alternative. This can lead to housing insecurity, too.
  • Lack of Community Support: When the going gets tough, many people lean on their support system to survive. However, if that system is also experiencing hardship or an individual has few trusted people to go to, finding secure housing can be an even greater challenge.

Food Insecurity Among College Students

While it can be somewhat normal to miss a meal here and there in school because of a busy schedule, food insecurity among college students is more common than most know. Couple the high cost of education with limited work hours, and it is easy to understand why college students are at particular risk when it comes to not having nutritious food or the funds to buy it.

Full-time students are required to take a minimum of 12 credits per semester. Any less than that, and they are at risk of losing scholarships or having complications with federal loans and grants. So, those 12 credits are guaranteed time in class, assuming the student attends. For this example, we will ignore potential labs, office hours, or tutoring students may need to complete.

On top of the hours spent in class—which are roughly 2.5 hours per week for each class—students have to study, write papers, and meet for group assignments. The required hours outside class will vary but could be as much as 15 to 20 hours per week, depending on a student's major and workload. So, four classes clocking in at 2.5 hours per week, in addition to 15 hours spent working independently on the course material, equates to 25 hours a week. This is less than working full time, which accounts for 35 to 40 hours per week.

However, that calculation only includes time spent on coursework and is, quite honestly, a very low estimate. With the rising cost of living throughout the country and education costs trending upward, too, many students have to work to make ends meet. A part-time job can be 10 to 34 hours a week.

And even with all of that factored in, the time required for transportation, personal care, working out, grocery shopping, laundry, and socializing is not even accounted for. When additional stressors and time constraints are taken into consideration, it is no wonder students are more likely to face food insecurity.

Effects of Food Insecurity

Food insecurity impacts more than just stomachs. College students dealing with the effects of food insecurity are susceptible to one or all of its consequences, including:

  • Stress: Not being able to know with confidence when their next meal will become available leaves people in a stressed and anxious state. Coupled with the workload requirements of higher education, this can leave college students feeling overwhelmed, especially if they already have a diagnosed mood disorder.
  • School Performance Issues: Food insecurity can also impact students' school performance and ability to do their best. The brain requires protein to function, and the body needs fuel to keep going. Depriving it of these vital nutrients can drastically influence a student's grades, ability to focus in class, and quality of work.
  • Troubled Relationship with Food: If a student has dealt with food insecurity for most or even part of their life, it may cause a complicated relationship with food and eating. Students may overeat to compensate for missed meals, or they may hoard food whenever it is available to try and get as much longevity out of it as possible.

Physical Health

Human bodies require many things to keep going, one of which is food. When deprived of nutrients or even undergoing a calorie-restricted diet, bodies cannot function properly. This has a domino effect on every area of life, including school.

Some of the major impacts on physical health are:

  • Metabolism Disruption: When a person does not intake enough calories, their metabolism takes a hit. Severely reduced caloric intake causes the metabolism to slow down to preserve whatever nutrients are being consumed. The energy converted from the amount of food a person eats is then used to keep vitals, like breathing, going. People dealing with a slowed metabolism can feel sluggish and lack the energy needed for daily activities.
  • Nutritional Imbalances: If a person is only eating processed sugar, for example, their body will be deprived of the nutrition it needs to function. This can impact a variety of things, potentially leading to infertility, bone density loss, digestion issues, and more. Eating healthy has a range of positive benefits that include a stronger immune system, better concentration, and even improved mood.
  • Major Health Problems: All areas of the body are impacted by a low caloric diet. Dental health, thyroid issues, anemia, and more are common when the body does not receive the required nutrients to function. These health problems can impact the ability to work, go to school, or do nearly any daily task.

Mental Health and Academic Success

Mental health concerns in college students are already a growing issue that requires attention. However, food insecurity can exacerbate some mental health conditions. Being uncertain of access to consistent, nourishing meals can cause:

  • Anxiety: When the body goes without substantial nutritious food, it is common to experience anxiety. This can lead to problems concentrating, sleep deprivation, and other severe symptoms that may impact the ability to succeed in school. Unfortunately, anxiety in college students is already higher than the national average, so food insecurity only compounds the issue.
  • Depression: In addition to anxiety, food insecurity leads to a higher likelihood of depression. Because of the close connection between digestion and mental health, it is no wonder that lacking nutrition can cause a decrease in overall happiness and even depression.
  • Eating Disorders: When an individual experiences food insecurity, they are likely to have negative feelings associated with food. It is not a source of joy, excitement, or peace because there is no guarantee of when their next meal will be. This can lead to a complicated relationship with food and potentially contribute to an eating disorder. A student may binge eat because of concerns over food availability in the future, or they may restrict to avoid getting accustomed to regular, healthy meals.

Effects of Housing Insecurity

Being a college student requires a lot of work outside the classroom. From studying and group projects to writing papers, there is no shortage of time used for school. However, those activities are disrupted when students do not have a stable place to live.

Housing insecurity as a college student is compounded by many issues, most notably that being a full-time student is equivalent to working a full-time job. Getting enough rest, having a place to relax, and being able to complete school work safely and comfortably becomes an even bigger obstacle when housing is uncertain. Instead of focusing on their upcoming exam, students with housing insecurity are in survival mode to keep a roof over their heads. They are crashing on couches and likely feeling unsettled and frustrated by their living situation.

Like food insecurity, there are both physical and mental impacts of housing insecurity.

Physical Health

Housing insecurity can take a toll on a person's physical health. Feeling unsafe or unwelcome in a housing situation can make it difficult to focus or get the necessary rest to prepare for the day ahead.

Plus, different people find different living situations acceptable. When crashing on a friend or family member's couch, it is not uncommon to have conflicts over cleanliness, noise levels, visitors, and other living expectations, which only further ostracizes the person experiencing housing insecurity.

Not to mention, people with physical disabilities deal with even more while living in unstable housing circumstances. Necessary accommodations may not be possible in all homes, apartments, or condos, which can make getting around challenging. For example, someone with a physical disability requiring the use of a wheelchair would find it nearly impossible to stay in an apartment on the third floor with only stairs.

These are all things to consider when understanding the impacts of housing insecurity, especially on college students.

Mental Health and Academic Success

Stress in college students is a hot topic and has been for years. Pursuing higher education is a privilege, but it also requires an immense amount of time, effort, and resources to be successful. Without a stable living situation, students can feel even more stress on top of the existing stress associated with school.

Even staying with friends or family can be challenging because they may limit how many people can be in their residence at a time or have life changes that make staying with them no longer an option. Sometimes these changes are sudden and require students to think on their feet to adjust, which can be a significant source of stress.

Mental health in college students depends upon many things like their support system, social life, access to tools for academic success, and even basic needs. Being in college while dealing with housing insecurity only exacerbates mental health issues and makes life harder.

How to Combat Food and Housing Insecurity

It is no secret that the repercussions of food and housing insecurity are severe. However, there are solutions that can help address these issues and alleviate some stress for college students. Change can happen through government programs, access to resources, and voting in ways that align with fixing the systemic issues that have contributed to these situations.

Unfortunately, there is not a one-size-fits-all solution because these issues are systemic and closely tied to other economic factors. But that does not mean viable options do not exist. Finding the right resources to help can be a game changer for college students facing food or housing insecurity.

Remember that these concerns impact many people, so there is no shame in seeking help. Finding the right resource can provide support to feel more confident in accessing food and safe housing. Here are a few resources that can assist students in securing more stable and consistent access to food and finding a safe place to live.

Resources for Food Insecurity

A little research can go a long way when it comes to increasing food security. There are programs to help make nutritious food more accessible; it is just about finding them. Keep in mind that colleges and universities may offer robust resources for students facing food insecurity. Go to the school website and do a quick search to see if anything comes up. If so, check for eligibility and apply or complete any other necessary steps. If not, do not be afraid to reach out directly to professors, program leads, or other employees at the school for help. The worst they can say is no, and there is a good chance they can point in a helpful direction.

Asking for help is not always easy. Remember that programs exist for a reason and are meant to be used. Here are a few program types to look into.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, is the primary food assistance program offered by the federal government. Focused on assisting eligible low-income people, SNAP provides a card similar to a debit card that can be used to purchase groceries at retail stores. Not all food is eligible, so additional verification may be necessary.

To be SNAP eligible, people must:

  1. Apply in their state of residence: Each state functions differently with this program and requires completion of a different application form. For questions about a particular state, contact the SNAP office.
  2. Have less than the maximum countable resources: The SNAP program uses baseline eligibility of resources as part of its requirements. Currently, households that have less than $2,500 in these assets, namely money in the bank or cash, qualify for the program. Elderly or disabled people have a higher threshold, and limitations apply. It is important to note that a home or lot of land does not count toward this amount. States determine if vehicles are considered an asset, so this will vary by location.
  3. Meet income limits: To be eligible for program benefits, households must make less than a certain income each month. For one person, the gross income—or the income before taxes and any other deductions—is $1,396. For one person, the net income—or the income after taxes and any other deductions—is $1,074.

Public Service Food Initiatives

Going directly to the state for help is not the only option because local resources exist too. Students can explore:

  • Swipe Out Hunger: With its sole focus on eliminating student hunger on college campuses, Swipe Out Hunger is a great resource to look into. They partner with universities throughout the country to help alleviate hunger stress and provide resources for over 450 campuses.
  • Local Food Banks: On a smaller scale, most big cities and even some smaller ones have food banks that offer free food to those in need. Mostly focused on non-perishable items, food banks have a plethora of options and can often be accessed easier than other bigger organizations. Note that some foods are not always guaranteed to be in stock, so reach out before making the trip.
  • Grassroots Movements: Lastly, some small groups or organizations run food drives and other programs to help fight food insecurity. Asking around or searching on social media can help locate which one may be the best fit.

Resources for Housing Insecurity

Housing insecurity is a complex problem, so it is important to approach finding resources on an individual basis. However, in addition to living with family members, loved ones, and roommates to reduce living expenses, students can talk with their universities to explore various alternatives. Most colleges will offer low-income housing options for eligible students, so be proactive about finding those and applying as early as possible. Early action could help secure a spot. Take account of the situation as a whole and see what will work best. Remember that on top of housing, there is the cost of transportation to and from campus, and possible additional expenses related to a place of residence.

There are also many different need-based financial assistance options available to students facing housing insecurity.

Grants and Loans

Student loans and grants help pay for higher education-related expenses like tuition and books. However, certain loans and grants are also available to cover the cost-of-living expenses while in school. Review existing financial aid or scholarships to see if that is an option, especially if housing insecurity is fast approaching. Then, consider applying for additional loans or grants that are specific to covering shelter costs while in school.

Talking to mentors, peers, and classmates can also be a valuable source of information. If someone has experience applying for or using financial aid for living expenses, pick their brain to understand how it worked for them.

As with any financial program, it is important to evaluate all possible terms and conditions to make the wisest decision. Review things like interest rates, eligibility requirements, and more in the portfolio of loans, grants, and scholarships to avoid potential financial hardship down the road.

Emergency Housing Options

When housing insecurity strikes with little notice, there are emergency options to explore. These include:

  • Shelters: Used primarily as a temporary housing location, shelters are a resource in emergencies that can be used by people of all ages, demographics, and life stages, including college students.
  • Crisis Centers: If housing insecurity is brought about by an act of domestic violence or other potentially harmful situation, crisis centers are available. Crisis centers have information on their websites, which is a great place to start. However, circumstances may make reviewing this information challenging, so ensuring personal safety is of utmost importance.
  • Hospitals: Many hospitals can be safe havens for those experiencing housing insecurity. While not every hospital applies, it is worth reviewing which ones offer a safe place to stay, even if it is just for the night.
  • Church Initiatives: Lastly, certain religious organizations provide emergency shelter when people face housing insecurity. Again, a quick search or review of their social media profiles can help provide the necessary information to get started.