Real Food, Not Ramen: Wisconsin College Students More Food Insecure Than Ever

Nov 29, 2016

In college, students might joke about living on ramen noodles, or popcorn. But for some, hunger can be a real problem.

According to at least one study, today’s college students suffer higher levels of food insecurity than ever before.

So as a more diverse population of students works toward higher education, some campuses are figuring out how to make sure those young people have meals, including in Milwaukee.

When you meet smiling, friendly 23-year-old Shara Edwards, you’d never guess that anything could bring her down. But what has been a struggle for her ever since she was a kid is wondering whether she’ll have enough to eat.

23-year-old Shara Edwards recently graduated from Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee.
Credit Rachel Morello

“My mom, she’s on, like Foodshare, that kind of thing,” Edwards shares. “When I went to high school, I was in the Choice program. We did get free lunch.”

Edwards graduated from Cardinal Stritch University in 2015. Looking back, she says meals were as much a concern as her studies. College advisers offered her academic help, but when it came to food…

“…I was just basically figuring that stuff out on my own,” Edwards remembers.

And she’s not alone. Nearly half of college students report they have trouble getting enough to eat, according to recent reports. And students like Edwards – who are the first in their family to go to college – are particularly at risk.

Food insecurity on campus can range from eating smaller portions to skipping meals altogether because of an inability to pay for food.

Unlike the K-12 system, in college, the federal government doesn’t run a free and reduced price meal program. And some leaders say, it’s time for that policy to change.

“Something magical apparently happens between age 18 and 19, when apparently, they no longer need food, at least according to our policies,” says Sara Goldrick-Rab, a former UW-Madison professor and head of the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, a national research organization aimed at increasing college affordability.

"Something magical apparently happens between age 18 and 19, when apparently, [students] no longer need food, at least according to our policies."

Goldrick-Rab says she wants policies that will do more to help students thrive while they work toward a degree. For instance, she urges lawmakers to pursue creative ways of addressing food insecurity on campus, such as expanding the K-12 school lunch program to colleges and universities or rethinking how to evaluate students for food stamp eligibility.

“We don’t need people dropping out of school with debt and no degree because we didn’t think it was important enough for them to have milk,” she says. “The question in front of us now is how best to deal with it?”

One approach a few campuses around Wisconsin take is creating student food pantries.

In downtown Milwaukee, MATC opens its pantry to students every Wednesday from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. It’s nothing big – in fact, it’s literally a cabinet in the Office of Student Life stocked with non-perishable items such as raisins, macaroni and canned beans.

Kimberly Gilmartin is in charge. She says her office opened its pantry in February of this year when a number of students came in seeking lunch vouchers or free meals.  

“It started to get noticeable,” Gilmartin recalls, “so we thought this was a good kind of aid that could help them get through a crunch time, between pay checks or something.”

Despite what help these pantries are able to provide, leaders like Sara Goldrick-Rab say they function more as a Band-Aid, rather than a permanent solution to hunger on campus.

“Providing people with seven days a week of ramen is not the answer to food insecurity,” Goldrick-Rab says. “And people in food pantries know that.”

Gilmartin certainly acknowledges that even her well-stocked shelf doesn’t solve all hunger issues for MATC students. She knows of several other schools with similar issues, too – UW-Stevens Point and UW-LaCrosse, among them.

“I did kind of a regional comparison to see what’s out there, and they’re all kind of similar,” Gilmartin says. “Obviously, those are bigger universities – we’re just a little corner over here!”

The process of getting food at MATC is pretty unceremonious. Anybody with a valid student ID can drop in at the pantry. They sign a one-time waiver and Gilmartin hands them a plastic grocery bag full of food – mostly canned goods.

The students who do stop by say they’d rather not talk to a reporter about the experience. And Gilmartin says she understands.

“Some of them are a little embarrassed, and they’re kind of relieved when I don’t ask for their story,” she shares.

In most K-12 public schools systems, families fill out a form to indicate their eligibility for free or reduced price lunch. That’s how districts know their level of need. Or, in the case of districts like Milwaukee Public Schools, enough families fall below the necessary income level that everyone in the system receives free lunch – a “universal” program.

But colleges have a tougher time tracking real-time hunger statistics. High school students are able to mark on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, whether their families have taken part in benefits programs within the last year. But that doesn’t account for kids whose situations are in flux, or those who would rather not share that information with their university.

"Some [students] are a little embarrassed, and they're kind of relieved when I don't ask for their story."

“We have to consider stigma when designing these programs in college,” adds Sara Goldrick-Rab. “You can say adults shouldn’t care. But they do.”

Shara Edwards is open to sharing her experience – but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

She now works as an adviser at College Possible, helping low-income students apply to college. And Edwards meets plenty, living in situations similar to her own.

“One of my students, actually, she says to me that she only eats twice a day now. I felt really bad about that…” she trails off, her voice catching in her throat.

“I’m sorry,” Edwards says as she composes herself. “I just feel bad about it because…to think that she doesn’t have food…”

Does she see herself in those students?

“Yeah,” Edwards responds. “I do.”