There is growing awareness of food insecurity among college students, with several studies documenting its presence and recommendations for addressing it. The majority of studies are quantitative and fail to offer insight into how students view food insecurity and what they and their universities can do about it. This study provides that perspective.
To examine how students experiencing food insecurity make sense of, navigate, and recommend addressing it.
Study Design, Setting, Participants
An anonymous survey was administered at a Mid-Atlantic university using Qualtrics and elicited 1,283 responses (93.1% undergraduate; 6.9% graduate). Following the survey, three 90-minute focus groups were conducted with 13 students (84.6% undergraduate; 15.4% graduate) who self-identified as food insecure.
The 68-item survey included questions regarding students' background, finances, and food security status (using the 6-item USDA-FSS Short Form survey). The 19-item focus group guide included questions concerning food behaviors/practices, experiences with food insecurity, and solutions. Survey data were analyzed using SPSS. Focus groups were transcribed verbatim, and thematic analysis was conducted in NVivo using an inductive approach.
Of survey respondents, 38.9% indicated moderate to high food insecurity, with highest rates among Pell Grant recipients (55.4%), students with college debt (50.6%), and first-generation students (47.9%). Focus group themes included hesitancy to self-identify as food insecure; encounters with stigma; lack of awareness and understanding by the university; negative impact on social life; and self-reliance, particularly coping independently by donating plasma, eating cheap food, not eating, sneaking food, and using credit cards. Participants offered traditional solutions (eg, pantry, no-frills dining) and upstream solutions such as addressing stigma and developing new programming (eg, peer mentoring programs).
Quantitative findings are similar to those of previous studies, particularly relating to vulnerable groups; however, qualitative findings offer a unique perspective regarding students' perceptions of food insecurity, identities as food-insecure college students, and perspectives on addressing it.