Around 23% of college students were food insecure in 2020.
Food insecurity intensified during COVID-19, with rates of hunger nearly doubling in some states in 2020.
Food-insecure students had an average GPA of 3.33 out of 4.0, while food-secure students had an average GPA of 3.51.
College students who were food insecure were less likely to get their bachelor’s degrees than those who were food secure (21% vs. 36%).
First-generation college students who were food insecure finished college at a significantly lower rate than those who were first-generation and food secure (47% vs. 59%).Note Reference 
Food insecurity describes when a person has limited access to food. In less severe cases, it describes having limited access to quality foods or a limited variety of foods. An estimated 10.5% of American households were food insecure in 2020.
Some studies show that as many as half of college students are food insecure, making them a particularly vulnerable population.
Discover food insecurity statistics among college students, including its effects on course performance and graduation rates.
How Many College Students Are Food-Insecure?
Around 23% of undergraduate students were food insecure in 2020, meaning that they had low or very low food security.Note Reference  Another 12% were in the middle (somewhat secure), and 66% of college students had high food security.
|Food Security Status||Percentage of Undergraduate Students|
|High Food Security||66%|
|Marginal Food Security||12%|
|Low Food Security||9%|
|Very Low Food Security||13%|
Broken down by degree program, those pursuing certificates had the highest rate of food insecurity at 27%.
- Those in associate degree programs had a food insecurity rate of 25%.
- Those in bachelor’s degree programs had the highest rate of food security at 79% and the lowest rate of food insecurity at 21%.
Broken down by institution type, undergraduates in private, nonprofit, four-year programs had the highest rate of food security at 81%.Note Reference  Those in private for-profit, two-year programs had the lowest rate of food security, with 60% of students being food secure.
COVID-19 Exacerbated College Hunger
Food insecurity intensified during COVID-19, with rates of hunger nearly doubling in some states in 2020.Note Reference  People in the U.S. ages 18-24 were among the most vulnerable due to being most likely to be unemployed during the pandemic and not having access to housing with campus shutdowns.
A 2020 Nutrients study done on multiple college campuses in Texas found that roughly 35% of respondents were food insecure in May 2020. The biggest reasons included changes in their current living arrangements and losing part-time work due to the pandemic.
What Does It Mean to Be Food Insecure in College?
In 2006, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) introduced new descriptions of the ranges of food security and insecurity. These changes were based on the recommendations of the Committee on National Statistics (CNSTAT) of the National Academies, a private, government-funded, nonprofit organization that provides expert opinions in science, engineering, and medicine to inform policy.
|High Food Security||Having no food-access problems or limitations.|
|Marginal Food Security||Reporting anxiety over food sufficiency or shortage of food in the house. Having little or no change in diet.|
|Low Food Security (previously defined as “Food Insecurity Without Hunger”)||Having reduced quality, variety, or desirability of food.|
|Very Low Food Security (previously defined as “Food Insecurity With Hunger”)||Reporting disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.|
Did You Know…
What’s the difference between food insecurity and hunger?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has made the distinction:Note Reference 
- Hunger describes the individual-level physiological condition that comes from having limited or uncertain access to adequate food — including discomfort, illness, weakness, or pain. Hunger may result from food insecurity.
- Food insecurity describes the economic and social condition of having limited or uncertain access to enough food.
Some College Students Don’t Qualify for Food Stamps
Many college students also do not qualify for federal food assistance programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — formerly known as food stamps.Note Reference 
SNAP requires that applicants work 20 hours per week for three or more months within the last 36 weeks prior to the application. College students who do not meet the 20-hour working threshold are ineligible.
During the first years of the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress temporarily waived the work requirement for SNAP college student recipients. College students could qualify with part-time enrollment and a low income.
Correlation Between Food Insecurity and GPA
A 2018 Nutrients study surveyed 692 undergraduate and graduate students during fall 2016 at a rural university in Appalachia. Results showed that food insecurity significantly affected GPA. Food-insecure students had an average GPA of 3.33 out of 4.0, while food-secure students had an average GPA of 3.51.Note Reference 
The same study also showed that body mass index (BMI) — a measure of a person’s height and weight — did not greatly differ between food-secure and food-insecure students. However, there was a higher prevalence of obesity in the food-insecure population.Note Reference 
Correlation Between Food Insecurity and Graduation Rates
In another study in Public Health Nutrition, 44% of food-insecure students completed their undergraduate degrees compared to 68% of their food-secure counterparts.Note Reference 
College students who were food insecure were less likely to earn their bachelor’s degrees than those who were food secure (21% vs. 36%).Note Reference 
Those who were food insecure and completed a degree were more likely to have attained an associate degree (14% vs. 11%).Note Reference 
First-Generation College Students More Likely to Be Food-Insecure
First-generation college students who were food-insecure finished college at a significantly lower rate than first-generation students who were food-secure (47% vs. 59%).Note Reference 
The disparity was even wider between first-generation food-insecure college students and non-first-generation food-secure students (47% vs. 65%).Note Reference 
A 2022 Public Health Nutrition study showed that food-insecure students are 42% less likely to graduate.Note Reference 
Misconceptions of Food Insecurity in College Students
BestColleges spoke with Brandon L. Matthews, the previous co-director of campus resources at the College and University Food Bank Alliance (CUFBA), an organization dedicated to creating and supporting existing campus food banks.
According to Matthews, the struggle with food banks in the late 2000s and mid-2010s was getting institutions to buy into the idea of even having a food bank. College administrations worried about liability if students were to get sick.
Ivy Leagues were also worried about the stigma of having food pantries on their campuses, fearing that alumni would be deterred by the fact that such affluent institutions could have hungry students.
Matthews noted a shift around 2015-2016. Campuses went from focusing on the negative stigma of having food pantries, to really addressing the issue of food insecurity on campus. Since then, many campus dining halls have even supported the movement by donating food and no longer viewing food pantries as competition.
According to Jenna Griffin, a graduate assistant at the University of North Georgia Food Pantry, the biggest misconception now around college students and food insecurity is the assumption that
because [college students] are able to go to college, they must have adequate resources to attain basic needs.
Most students are receiving help through scholarships and grants, and those often only cover limited supplies and necessities after tuition, Griffin elaborated.