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Food

Determining food insecurity on college campuses

From left: Sharon Nickols, professor of food science & human nutrition; Cassandra Nikolaus, graduate student in food science; and Brenna Ellison, professor of agricultural and consumer economics
From left: Sharon Nickols, professor of food science & human nutrition; Cassandra Nikolaus, graduate student in food science; and Brenna Ellison, professor of agricultural and consumer economics

A growing body of research suggests that food insecurity is prevalent on college campuses.

But according to a new paper from a team of University of Illinois experts who study food choice issues, just how many college students struggle with having enough to eat on a consistent basis is a difficult number to pin down, according to a news release from the university.

The paper, co-written by Cassandra J. Nikolaus, Brenna Ellison and Sharon M. Nickols-Richardson, points to discrepancies in the way food insecurity is estimated among postsecondary students, with those discrepancies resulting in a range of potential students experiencing hunger.

Ellison, a professor of agricultural and consumer economics, said in the release, “We know there are students on college campuses who struggle with food insecurity. However, how you decide to measure food insecurity can have a large impact on the number of students you identify in need.”

Recent estimates point to anywhere from one-third to half of all postsecondary students experiencing food insecurity.

But take those eye-popping numbers with a grain of salt, the researchers say.

In the study, a randomized sample of more than 400 undergraduate students participated in an online survey that evaluated sociodemographic characteristics and food insecurity with a two-item food sufficiency screener and the 10-item Department of Agriculture Adult Food Security Survey Module.

An analysis of the data revealed inconsistencies in the college students’ response patterns when compared with the general population, according to the paper.

“We examined four different versions of how you assess food insecurity among college students, and its prevalence changed with each version,” Nikolaus, a graduate student in human nutrition and the lead author of the study, said in the release.

Given the limited resources available for universities to identify and serve students living with food insecurity, it’s vital that the way food insecurity is assessed accurately identifies students most critically in need, the researchers say.

. “A lot of campuses have food pantries, but many students that I’ve interviewed for our next study said they don’t want to use them. There’s a stigma about it – that’s for real poor people, not me. Even though they’re specifically meant for students, they hesitate to use them.”

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