Auburn University’s Hunger Solutions Institute leading national effort to end hunger on campuses

Published: September 03, 2019
Updated: September 18, 2019
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The nation is taking a hard look at hunger in college, and Auburn University’s Hunger Solutions Institute is at the forefront of the push for campus food security.

The Hunger Solutions Institute, or HSI, is a coalition of administrators, faculty, staff, students and volunteers working to reduce food insecurity on campus. The USDA defines food insecurity as the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.

As detailed in the 2018 student wellness report from the Office of Student Affairs, 27 percent of Auburn students are food insecure. In partnership with End Child Hunger in Alabama task force members, HSI is leading a statewide higher education coalition to address college student food insecurity. HSI is also developing a campus assessment tool that will be used across the nation to measure progress toward becoming a zero hunger campus.

“Until recently, the college student population was a hidden hunger group,” said Alicia Powers, HSI’s managing director. “Although we are only starting to understand college student hunger, we know more students are impacted by hunger than we ever could have imagined.”

Earlier this year, the Hunger Solution Institute’s first statewide initiative, End Child Hunger in Alabama, established a working group made up of ten Alabama universities and spearheaded by Auburn Associate Professor of Nutrition Onikia Brown. The Alabama Campus Coalition for Basic Needs unifies these institutions to implement a far-reaching, systematic approach to end campus food insecurity by engaging students, assessing the problem, making plans of action, implementing change on campus and evaluating progress toward zero hunger.

Members of the Alabama Campus Coalition include Alabama A&M University, Alabama State University, Auburn, Jacksonville State University, Troy University, Tuskegee University, the University of Alabama, University of Alabama at Birmingham, University of North Alabama and University of South Alabama.

HSI is also developing a Campus Food Aid Self-Assessment Tool, or CFAST, to measure yearly progress of campus resources and culture relating to food insecurity at colleges across the country. The goal is to provide an easy-to-use method for university leaders to gauge the extent of food insecurity and prevention efforts on their campuses.

Engagement on Campus

Late last year, the United States Government Accountability Office, or GAO, published the 2018 Report on College Student Food Insecurity, the first federal effort to understand the scope of food insecurity on college campuses. Of the 31 campuses studied, 22 reported food insecurity rates of more than 30 percent.

While comprehensive data on the national rate of food insecurity on campuses has yet to be recorded, Auburn has taken a significant step in that direction. Auburn was a pilot university for food security screening questions in the American College Health Association’s National College Health Assessment and was instrumental to ensuring those questions were incorporated permanently. With this addition to the survey, and with Auburn urging other universities to participate in answering these questions, the scope of the hunger problem on college campuses is closer to being realized.

“As data related to college student hunger becomes available, we are better able to understand the magnitude of the problem, raise awareness regarding this issue and determine best practices for solving college student hunger,” Powers said. “In addition, national-level data can be used for monitoring changes in college student hunger after resources and opportunities have been implemented.”

On its own campus, the HSI is helping to develop a campus-wide action plan to combat food insecurity. To raise awareness of the resources available to food insecure students, they partnered with other campus organizations to host the War Damn Watermelon Welcome Week event at the start of the semester. By connecting with representatives from HSI, AU Cares, which oversees the Campus Food Pantry and the Feed the Family Fund, Beat Bama Food Drive, The Campus Kitchen at Auburn University, Student Government Association and Universities Fighting World Hunger, students become more aware of the various resources available on campus—a crucial step to ending food insecurity.

Awareness and Accessibility

The first step in creating positive change on campus is to survey to determine the extent of student food insecurity. Colleges and universities can also establish and expand food recovery organization groups so that food does not go to waste. Other solutions include offering nutrition education, food scholarships, food sharing apps and campus dining programs that allow the transfer of unused meal credits.

Daniel Crifasi is a senior in Mechanical Engineering and spokesman for the student-led Campus Kitchens chapter at Auburn University, a student organization within the Division of University Outreach. Each month, the student organization is able to distribute thousands of meals to those in need.

“We collect unserved food that would usually go to waste, recover that food and package it into nutritious meals for the food insecure in Lee County and Auburn University. Every Friday, we have Auburn Family meals where students can come get meals at Toomer Hall in the Hill, free of charge,” he said. “Whether you’re volunteering or donating food, there are and always will be ample opportunities for campus members to join the fight.”

The HSI has also compiled a list of campus resources at aub.ie/eat, including information on community food pantries, on-campus resources and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

According to the GAO report, 2 million students who qualified for food assistance in 2016 did not receive benefits.

Ending the Stigma

When students need help, Sara Rains, a doctoral candidate and HSI graduate research assistant, said the social stigma around food insecurity may stop them from getting assistance.

 “If you imagine yourself in the position of a student who is struggling to make ends meet, it isn’t hard to understand why a hungry student would be hesitant to seek assistance,” she said. “Students don’t want to be singled out in front of their peers as being hungry, and many students express feelings of guilt or embarrassment when they have to ask for help.”

Research suggests that when students don’t receive the help they need, hunger has a ripple effect on their overall quality of life. Risk factors associated with food insecurity include homelessness or housing insecurity, rising costs of college tuition and fees and financial assistance shortfalls to cover college expenses.

In addition, students from low-income households, those raising families, single parents, first-generation college students, students with disabilities, former foster youth, students of color, students attending community college and middle income students who don’t qualify for a Pell grant or other financial aid are all more likely to be food insecure.

Food insecure students may also experience depression, anxiety and/or other mental health problems. These students may have decreased academic performance or drop out entirely. In order to prevent this, a culture of food security support must be cultivated on college campuses across the nation.

“One way to normalize food resources is by advertising them alongside common student services, such as academic counseling, financial aid, career counseling and veteran services,” Rains said. “Eliminating stigma on campus will not happen automatically, but there are steps we can take to empower students and increase awareness of hunger on campus.”

Auburn University is a nationally ranked land grant institution recognized for its commitment to world-class scholarship, interdisciplinary research with an elite, top-tier Carnegie R1 classification and an undergraduate education experience second to none. Auburn is home to more than 30,000 students, and its faculty and research partners collaborate to develop and deliver meaningful scholarship, science and technology-based advancements that meet pressing regional, national and global needs. Auburn's commitment to active student engagement, professional success and public/private partnership drives a growing reputation for outreach and extension that delivers broad economic, health and societal impact. Auburn's mission to educate, discover and collaborate drives its expanding impact on the world.