Colleges have high rates of food insecurity and food waste. Students are helping address both.
Most evenings at the University of California, Irvine, phones across campus will buzz with the news of free food. There was a lecture earlier — or a concert, a mixer, any of the engagements that happen daily at a large university like this — and it looks like they ordered more refreshments than they could use. But instead of being thrown out, this food can be claimed by students on the Zot Bites text list — often saving them a swipe to the dining hall.
Created for students, by students, Zot Bites is a notification system that invites people to collect leftover food after a catered event on campus: Those who opt in receive a text alerting them where and when the food is available. The program is the work of the UC system’s Global Food Initiative fellows, part of an effort to address both the problem of food waste from UC campuses and an ever-growing concern among students across the country: food insecurity. Zot Bites was inspired by similar initiatives in California, such as the Food 4 UCSF Students app and Cal State Fullerton’s Titan Bites, to tackle an emerging crisis one meal at a time.
During the fall 2020 semester, the first full term during the pandemic, nearly 30 percent of students at four-year colleges and universities were struggling with food insecurity, according to a study conducted by Temple University. For those at two-year colleges, the number was even higher –– with more than 40 percent of students reporting that their access to adequate food was limited or unreliable. The crisis may now be even worse, as the government has ended the pandemic-era SNAP benefits that helped an estimated 3 million students by loosening the eligibility requirements. As a result, many students will lose the monthly food allowances that they have relied on for years — and some have argued that reverting back to the old requirements may deter prospective students from enrolling at all.
Food insecurity — defined as the lack of consistent access to enough healthy food — is often under-examined and under-addressed in the population of college students. The cause behind this crisis is complex, involving factors like increased education costs, rising living expenses and economic shifts in the college environment. Mirroring the significant disparities in food access more broadly, first-generation students, students from low-income households, students of color and disabled students are at higher risk of becoming food insecure than their classmates.
The impacts extend far beyond the lack of access to nutritious food. To make their food dollars stretch, students often choose cheaper processed foods like boxed and packaged items, and overconsumption of added sugars, trans fats and refined grains means food-insecure students are at higher risk of developing obesity. They can also face worsened health outcomes such as poor psychosocial health and higher risk of chronic diseases such as Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. This all profoundly impacts their ability to succeed: A study at one university found that food-insecure students had an average GPA of 3.33, while students who do not have to worry about food had a 3.51 average. Given the combination of the effects of this crisis, affected students often fail classes, delay graduation or even drop out of college.
Pounds of food thrown away by U.S. campuses every year.
There is some irony here. College environments are often associated with excess food, boasting all-you-can-eat dining halls, fast food joints and sometimes a slew of on-campus restaurants. In fact, campuses throw out more than 22 million pounds of food each year –– despite knowing that some of their very own students are struggling with access to nutritious meals. Dining halls typically make a surplus of food to avoid a shortage, and often throw it out at the end of the day. More often than not, food is presented buffet-style; dining plans are often paid by swipe-in rather than by weight, and sometimes allow unlimited entry. With the abundance of options, students, who may not be thinking about portion size, often take more than they consume. The average college student generates 142 pounds of food waste per year, much of which will go on to rot in landfills and contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.
The majority of food wasted in the U.S. is perfectly healthy and safe to consume, a fact that has led some organizations to adopt programs for food rescue: redirecting edible food that would otherwise go to waste (from places such as restaurants, grocery stores and dining facilities) to local programs that serve people in need. One such initiative, New York-based City Harvest, has rescued more than 1 billion pounds of food since it helped pioneer food rescue 40 years ago, donating it all to partner food pantries and soup kitchens.
A similar model can help address the food-access disparity on campus. At colleges and universities around the country — including Rutgers, South Dakota State, Utah State, University of West Georgia and Purchase College, among many others — surplus food and produce from the dining hall is donated to on-campus food pantries, often through the school chapter of the Food Recovery Network. These pantries provide a safe haven for students and help foster food dignity: According to a recent study, access to a food pantry “directly improved students’ perceived health, reduced the number of depressive symptoms they experienced, increased their sleep sufficiency, and boosted food security.” In the past decade, the number of on-campus pantries has leaped from 80 to 800.
Students have built other creative mutual-aid models to distribute excess food within their own campus communities. Along with dining hall donations and Zot Bites-style leftover-food alerts, the Rams Against Hunger initiative at Colorado State University hosts events where students can donate meal-swipes they won’t be using. Twice a week, student diners at the University of California, Los Angeles, are able to take uneaten food after the dining halls close through the Bruin Dine program.
“Bruin Dine was created by UCLA alum Joshua DeAnda after he witnessed the dining halls throw away pans of untouched food daily,” explained Megan Cai, Bruin Dine’s vice president. “Since then, our organization and events continue to be entirely student-led and student-run. If a student is unable to afford groceries or cannot feed themselves for any reason, they can rely on our events.” During the 2022-23 school year, the initiative recovered approximately 9,300 pounds of food and served nearly 5,000 diners.
Sometimes, food rescued on one campus can feed students on another where food insecurity is a larger concern. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, the food-rescue organization Food For Free collects leftover food from dining halls at Harvard and Tufts Universities — packaged into single-serving meals by student volunteers — and delivers to local community colleges through a program called Heat-n-Eats. Institutions like MassBay Community College in Wellesley gladly accept these deliveries, as food insecurity plagues over half of the school’s population. The system has been going strong since 2016. “We know that rates of food insecurity among college students are extremely high,” said Molly Hansen, senior program manager for Heat-n-Eats. “It can be a beautiful full-circle impact of food waste reduction at a college, and creating a new food distribution channel to meet those in need at another local school.”
In addition to starting conversations with their college’s Basic Needs Office or Food Resource Center, students who want to take action can get in touch with national organizations working on the issue of college hunger. Joining (or founding) a campus Food Recovery Network chapter can be a way to direct food recovered from dining halls back to peers in need. Swipe Out Hunger supports anti-hunger work at more than 600 colleges; schools in the Swipe Out network have access to swipe-drive toolkits and other resources, and are eligible for grants to fund initiatives like food rescue.
“Even one just one donated and consumed meal can mean the difference between passing a test or leaving higher education,” said Jaime Hansen, Swipe Out Hunger’s executive director. “The next wave of students shouldn’t have to choose between higher education goals and their basic needs.”
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Top photo by Africa Studio/Adobe Stock.