When Students Go Hungry

by Rebekah Goode
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Empty plate on teal table

College students in southern Appalachia are affected by food insecurity at a higher rate than the national average, which can translate into poor academic performance and unhealthy spending habits and coping mechanisms, according to a new study coauthored by researchers in the College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences, and published in Current Developments in Nutrition.

Researchers found that food insecurity has an average prevalence of 30.5 percent among college students who responded to online surveys at 10 four-year universities in the southern Appalachia region, which includes Mississippi, Tennessee, North Carolina, and West Virginia. In comparison, the national average of college students that face food insecurity is approximately 12 percent. At some campuses surveyed, food insecurity levels were as high as 51.8 percent.

Over 13,000 undergraduate and graduate students participated in the survey. Researchers performed a statistical analysis of the responses using the US Department of Agriculture’s Adult Food Security Survey and other scales to assess expenditures, coping strategies, and academic progress.

“We found that students who are food insecure had lower academic grades than those who did not face food insecurity,” said Marsha Spence, professor of public health nutrition and coauthor of the study. “These same students usually try to save money on other things to obtain food, such as spending less in transportation, utilities, and sometimes even medication.”

According to the study, several factors can predict food insecurity status: being a sophomore or a junior, having an ethnic minority background, receiving financial aid, and having reported poor health all indicate a higher risk of food insecurity.

“This study is part of a growing body of evidence that suggests that a large percentage of college students, including students from four-year public institutions, are at risk of food insecurity,” said coauthor Elizabeth Anderson Steeves, a professor in UT’s Department of Nutrition. “Studies like ours are important to understand food insecurity and its negative effects on students, so that universities can implement policies and programs to help alleviate this problem and help students succeed.”

Smokey’s Pantry

Students at UT Knoxville who are suffering from food insecurity can take advantage of Smokey’s Pantry, a collaboration between FISH Hospitality Pantries and Tyson House Lutheran and Episcopalian Campus Ministry with help from campus partners like the Dean of Students office. The pantry, which also provides hygiene products, doesn’t ask for any qualifying information (such as financial information, identification, etc.) in order to receive food. If you would like to give to the pantry, visit smokeyspantry.wordpress.com for a list of current needs.

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