College Students Struggle with Food Access

The Copley Square Farmers Market. Photo Courtesy of The Boston Calendar.
The Copley Square Farmers Market. Photo Courtesy of The Boston Calendar.

by Kathleen Thrane

College students around the country are struggling with food access, but farmers markets could be a viable solution.

Professor Marygold Walsh-Dilley spent most of her COVID quarantine researching food and eating habits on campus at the University of New Mexico.

She is an assistant professor of Social and Behavioral Sciences in the Honors College at the University of New Mexico. She and a group of professors at UNM researched food insecurity and accessibility on campus. Their research is called Basic Needs Insecurity at UNM, and the researchers made a big splash when they released their findings.

One in three UNM students were food insecure, while over 40 percent were housing insecure some time in the previous year, according to the study. Walsh-Dilley says that students are an expected victim of food insecurity. 

“During the pandemic, food insecurity went up 45% in some areas,” she said. 

Many students also provide for dependents and themselves while putting themselves through school and working full time jobs.

“I was talking to a colleague who also does work on global hunger, and we sort of said, ‘Oh, you know, I did the USDA Food security assessment among my students, and I always found about 15 to 25% among my classes.’ In my classes, I was teaching an honors class, which tends to have demographically better-off students than the larger university population here because we’re a minority-serving institution,” she said. “So there’s quite a bit of poverty. And then I started talking to my colleague about this great activity I was doing where we were measuring food insecurity, and how impactful it was for students to know that there was food insecurity among their peers. And so we sort of said, Well, I wonder, can we expand this? Can we expand it just into other classes? And then we thought, “Well, can we just expand it so that we know what’s going on at university as a whole?”

Walsh-Dilley is a sociologist and researches food systems and agriculture. Most of her work has been in South America.

Professor Marygold Walsh-Dilley. Photo courtesy of University of New Mexico.

“I’ve been teaching a class on food and society for my students. One of the things I started teaching was the USDA Food security assessment report,” she said. “I’m always looking for ways to make what I’m teaching my students more relevant to them. I started to look at food security among undergraduate students and I started to see ‘Oh, actually, there’s this kind of growing question about food security among college students.’ And some of the research is suggesting it’s actually pretty darn high.”

Will Jacobs knows it can be hard to secure food for himself while working a full time job and attending graduate school in-person at night. 

“It can be hard to get affordable food on the go because I’m running from one job to the next,” he said. 

Jacobs is a student at Boston College studying cybersecurity at night. During the day, Monday through Friday, he works as a paralegal in the Financial District. 

“Farmers markets are great,” he said. “But I don’t have the time to go and shop for food. None of the ones close to me are open on the weekends.”

This is a big problem with farmers market locations. A lot of the locations are not convenient for students who don’t have a lot of time to commute to and from the market during weekdays. 

Walsh-Dilley does not think farmers markets near campus could help food security among undergraduate students at the University of New Mexico.

Listen to Walsh-Dilley explain how she got involved in this research project here:

“Western cities don’t have a centralized downtown. So Albuquerque doesn’t have a downtown,” she said. “Near the university, there really isn’t a place for it. There is a farmers market on Thursday evenings. That’s like on the other end of the neighborhood, and it’s kind of a big neighborhood called Nob Hill. But I doubt very many students go there. The big farmers market is on Saturdays in the downtown area, but you’d have to take a bus or drive to get down there. I suppose you could get a bike, but it’d be a pretty strenuous bike. We do have a sustainability studies class or sustainability studies program that does have some elements of bringing farmers on to campus, like once a year and spring, but that’s it.”

Dr. Patrick Wright knows that proper nutrition is vital, especially during childhood and young adulthood.

“Nutrition is an important part of your health,” he said. “Young adults and children need to consume healthy food.”

Wright was surprised to hear about food insecurity among college students.

Infographic by Kathleen Thrane.

“College is a time when you need to fuel your body,” he said. “People are staying up late and drinking so it’s vital that they can take care of their health.”

“Nutrition is one of the most important pieces of the puzzle,” Jane Norgard agreed. 

Norgard is a retired social worker in Hennepin County, Minnesota. She used to work with families and help them get access to healthy, affordable food. Norgard also knows how detrimental it can be to a family to not be able to eat healthy, fresh foods.

“I’ve worked with people who had a hard time accessing fresh produce,” Norgard said. “My work was to provide resources for people to nourish themselves and their families for a low cost. A lot of the time processed foods are cheaper and easier to prepare and that’s a huge problem. Farmers markets are a great solution, but a lot of times they are not accessible.”

Walsh-Dilley agrees that fresh fruits and vegetables are so important for student health.

“One of the things that you see is that food insecurity among college students is obesogenic behavior. College students have higher obesogenic behaviors. One of the obesogenic behaviors is not eating very many fruits and vegetables. So not eating very much fruits, fresh fruits and vegetables is obesogenic so we know that college students, or that food insecure college students are eating less food less like fresh vegetables and fruit,” Walsh-Dilley said.

The study was conducted at the beginning of COVID, and surprisingly food insecurity among students decreased during the pandemic. 

“When students live at home, their food security is much better. So if you have a kind of a bump in students living at home, then actually food insecurity decreases. It went down, but not by much. It went down by three percentage points. But still, it did. It wasn’t as bad as we all kind of thought it might be,” Walsh-Dilley said.

This year, Walsh-Dilley and her colleagues are compiling data to assess food insecurity on UNM’s campus during 2021. She expects those results to be published in late summer.

About Kathleen Thrane 4 Articles
Kathleen Thrane is a recent graduate of Emerson College’s graduate journalism program. She is excited to continue freelancing as a food reporter.