By Bailey Hendricks & Mary-Ellen Davis
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writers
What this story covers
Having a full stomach helps a person be more productive. But for some college students, that’s not an option. They cannot afford to eat three full meals and are having to look for alternative — usually less healthy — food options.
Why it matters
Food insecurity not only leads to unproductive students, it can lead to mental health struggles. Colleges are increasingly finding ways to help students afford food when traditional meal plans are out of reach.
Food insecurity, defined by the federal government as food-access problems or limitations, is a much larger problem on college campuses than many would think. The average college charges about $4,500 per academic year for a meal plan, according to Peterson’s college guide. Many students receive financial aid to pay for college, forcing some to cut corners on meal plans to get the most bang for their buck.
Tuition is a set cost. So is housing. And other monthly bills (phone, internet, etc.) are non-negotiable. That means that students in a financial bind often skimp on food out of necessity — it is one of the few expenses that can be scaled back. But doing so comes at a cost to students. They report that when they are hungry or forced to eat junk food, they tend to become moody and irritable. And, as a result, they are unable to focus on school and work. Simply put, food insecurity can lead to a range of mental health problems.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there are several levels of food insecurity.
Food insecurity can take a toll on students. Megan Barber, a student at Hood College, lost more than 20 pounds because her classes conflicted with dining hall hours and she could not afford to eat outside of the dining hall. She also had issues not wanting to eat due to the dining hall’s limited food options.
At Towson University, a 14-meal-per-week plan costs $5,400 per year. Meghan Hudson, a Towson sophomore, had a 14-meal-per-week plan while she lived on campus. This amounts to only two meals per day. Hudson often ate two larger meals but skipped the third because of a lack of resources, which she described as “difficult.”
“It became a choice of, well, you can eat, or participate in campus activities.” —Meghan Barber
Towson has taken steps to help students who have difficulty affording food. Adam Melfa is a case manager at the Office of the Vice President for Student Affairs. He helps run Towson’s meal swipe donation program, the Food Insecurity Support Fund, and Towson’s food pantry.
Laura Sinche, pastor of The Table, a Lutheran Episcopal ministry, also helps to run Towson’s food pantry. She said that mental health and food insecurity go hand in hand. When she goes without food, she feels faint and uneasy — and she can’t imagine how hard it is for a stressed-out college student to not get a meal.
In this podcast, we speak with Barber, Hudson, Melfa, Sinche and others about food insecurity, and links to physical and mental health problems.