One in five K-State undergrads will skip meals to save money, research says

The Cats' Cupboard on Kansas State campus in Manhattan Kan. on Sept. 21, 2017. (Photo by Alex Shaw | Collegian Media Group)

College students’ hectic schedules often result in missed meals, but for some Kansas State students, cutting their food consumption down to one or two meals per day is a conscious choice to save money in the face of rising tuition and living expenses.

In 2015, a campus climate survey revealed that nearly half of all K-State students (48 percent) reported facing financial hardship while attending school. Additionally, nearly one in five (19 percent) students indicated that they lack the funds to afford nutritious food, an economic condition also known as food insecurity.

Food insecurity is defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods.” It affects half of all college students in the nation at least once during their time in school.

Miranda Klugesherz, recent K-State graduate in communication studies, spent several months interviewing students to gain a firsthand account of their experience with food insecurity as part of her master’s thesis.

“What we don’t have are the stories,” Klugesherz said. “And what we don’t know is what led to these problems and how they’re coping with it, or how it affects them. If we don’t have these details, we can’t possibly create effective programs to change the cycle.”

According to Klugesherz’s research, one in four students in the United States experiencing food insecurity will drop out of school altogether. This corresponds to one out of every eight college students dropping out because the rising costs of housing, tuition, books and health care often leave less money in students’ bank accounts for food.

Students who willingly go hungry to make ends meet often stave off their hunger by drinking coffee and tea, or chewing gum.

For some, the situation is so dire that skipping meals is no longer an effective way to meet the financial demands of staying in school.

Brandon Irwin, assistant professor of kinesiology and director of the Heathy Communities Laboratory, said a lack of affordable housing is the single greatest cause of food insecurity.

“If you’re spending more than 30 percent of your income on housing, you’re cost-burdened,” Irwin said. “Being cost-burdened comes along with a number of health consequences. You’re at a higher risk for being physically inactive … a higher risk of being food insecure, and you don’t have as much money to spend on health care.”

In Riley County, 55 percent of all renters spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing. This makes Riley County the fourth most rent-burdened county in Kansas, according to the Healthy Communities Laboratory.

In Manhattan, many churches and organizations like the Flint Hills Breadbasket sponsor and regularly provide food and meals for people in need. However, those experiencing food insecurity often avoid such services because it makes them feel weak, Klugesherz said.

One of the subjects interviewed in her thesis, a full-time undergraduate and member of the National Guard, told Klugesherz: “It’s this idea that … you’re weak and you don’t deserve to do things to better yourself because you couldn’t figure it out on your own.”

He also said that hunger is a difficult subject to discuss, especially in Kansas, because of the traditional conservative belief in pulling oneself up “by the bootstraps” and working harder to overcome poverty.

Instead of asking for help or going to a food pantry, these students would rather brush off their situation and just cope with it. One way students try to downplay their situation is by saying, “It’s not that bad,” or “This is the way it’s supposed to be,” Klugesherz said.

Klugesherz said she admits some amount of struggle is part of the college experience but said she disagreed with the mindset of students downplaying these circumstances, raising concern over their health and grades.

“To a certain extent, this isn’t supposed to be the most lucrative years of your life,” Klugesherz said. “But when you’re getting to the point where you’re eating one meal a day and you can’t focus, you can’t sleep … that means all of your schoolwork goes down the drain.”

Food insecurity can be severely detrimental to one’s well-being. For college students, the consequences are compounded by stress from academic requirements and the desire to have a social life.

Klugesherz highlighted this in her research, writing that having little access to food, nutritious or otherwise, can leave students feeling tired, weak and depressed. This can result in negative effects on students’ academics and social lives, which can further lead to suicidal ideation.

Because of the negative effects that food insecurity can pose, “it is unsurprising that malnutrition is the second leading cause of mental health concerns in the college population,” Klugesherz said in her thesis.

From the outside, this problem seems like an easy fix, Klugesherz said. Students just need to work more and practice better budgeting. But some students, specifically those in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, can’t allocate enough time at their jobs to pay for living expenses.

In a 2013 report by CBS News, it was found that roughly 30 percent of undergraduates — excluding the 14 percent who worked full-time — worked more than 20 hours a week during the school year.

Additionally, to apply for benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, a student must meet the requirement of working at least 20 hours a week, among other things.

The problem of food insecurity has not gone unnoticed by members of the K-State community. The university recently established a new food pantry on campus to help combat this problem.

As previously reported by the Collegian, a coordinator has been hired to manage food donations and distribution. The new food pantry, called the Cats’ Cupboard, will be larger than the current food pantry in the Office of Student Life, room 201 in Holton Hall.

The decision to open Cats’ Cupboard was based on students’ needs outpacing the resources available at the current pantry.

“Our students were indicating that they were selling [blood] plasma,” Sarah Barrett, Clery Act federal compliance coordinator for Cats’ Cupboard, said. “They’d be willing to get a payday loan, and some indicated that they had.”

Klugesherz said food insecurity has severe social impacts on university students.

“It changes the way we shop here in Manhattan, the way classes are run, the grades of these students,” Klugesherz said. “If the basic needs of a human population aren’t being met, the implications are far larger than we can possibly ever track.”