At the University of Kentucky, officials often tout that nearly half a billion dollars has been spent on new buildings for students in recent years, from gleaming new dorms to dining areas that feature everything from Chik-fil-A to sushi.
But according to a recent survey done at the school, those shiny facades mask a more depressing reality: of nearly 2,000 UK students interviewed, 43 percent said they experienced food insecurity on campus, with nearly half of those reporting actual hunger because they couldn’t afford to buy food. Eight percent said they had experienced housing insecurity, too.
The report, titled “Meeting Basic Needs of Students,” defines food insecurity as “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods due to lack of financial resources.” Food insecurity can lead to eating less healthy food, increased risk of chronic disease like diabetes, social exclusion, poor mental health, depression and anxiety, and decreased academic performance, according to the report.
The survey asked students if, in the last 12 months, they cut the size of meals, skipped meals, ate less than they should, or went hungry because there was not enough money for food. The survey was approved by the UK Institutional Review Board.
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UK spokesman Jay Blanton urged caution in drawing conclusions from the survey’s findings, because it was not a scientifically random sample of students.
“The survey is helpful and makes clear we need to do more research on this pressing issue,” Blanton said. “We need now to take further steps — such as a randomized sample of our students and a better understanding of income levels of respondents — to ensure we understand the problem fully. The challenge is real and this report helps highlight that as well as the need for UK to take a comprehensive approach to the issue — something to which we are deeply committed.”
However, because the sample mirrored UK’s demographics, it is considered a representative sample, said Amanda Hege, director of community outreach in dietetics and human nutrition in the College of Agriculture, Food and Environment, who was involved in the survey. The methodology followed a recent national report done by Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple University and founder of the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, which found that about 36 percent of students attending four-year colleges and universities said they had “low” or “very low” food security.
The U.S. General Accounting Office released a report on Wednesday that was unable to assess a national rate of hunger on campus, but said that 650 colleges reported having a food pantry for students. The report also found that while 3.3 million students were eligible for food stamps, about 2 million said they had not accessed the federal program to get them.
UK was one of the sites visited by GAO researchers. The report studied 31 reliable surveys on student hunger, and 22 of them estimated that more than 30 percent of students are food insecure.
In addition, the report notes that Feeding America, the largest anti-hunger organization in the nation, estimates that almost half of its clients attending college regularly choose between educational expenses and food.
The UK survey’s findings don’t surprise Jaeana Gates, a first generation student from Western Kentucky, who got to UK and was unprepared for the nearly $3,000 in food costs not included in her scholarship.
“For my family that was a lot of money,” Gates said. “I actually downgraded my meal plan so I could use some of that money to buy something at Kroger for snack food, but Kroger is also expensive for someone who does not have any income. It was a constant struggle — when I was hungry, it was harder to focus and have a quality of life in school, with anxiety that you can’t afford food regularly.”
After Gates became a resident adviser, her food and board were paid for, but she said she knows a lot of students who continue to struggle with those costs.
At UK, tuition alone has increased 105 percent since 2005, due in part to a decade of cuts in state funding. The total cost of attendance, which includes housing and food costs, tops $30,000 a year.
Housing and food costs have also grown. UK has largely privatized its housing and food operations in partnership with two large corporations, Education Realty Trust and Aramark. UK officials decided to outsource those two services because the companies had the equity to build numerous facilities that UK could not afford.
In 2018-2019, the minimum meal plan is $3,050 for 10 meals a week, while the most expensive is $3,950 for all-access dining.
The least expensive housing, with four students to a suite, is $7,400 a year. The most expensive is a two-bedroom suite for $8,832.
According to the contract signed with EDR, housing rates increase 3 percent a year, and Aramark’s rates have risen between 1 percent and 3 percent a year.
Blanton said that after turning dining over to Aramark, the cost per meal of an all-access plan is $5, “significantly less than it would have been had we maintained dining in house.”
Students are skeptical of that claim.
“Housing and food are expensive at UK, especially with UK building more properties, students are getting priced out as the properties get nicer and more expensive,” said Meghana Kudrimoti, a UK senior who directs the Big Blue Pantry, an on-campus food bank for students. “There are many students who can tell you there is that gap in expenses that are not being covered by any kind of aid.”
The Big Blue Pantry, which sits in the basement of the Whitehall Classroom Building, was set up by students in 2014 “who noticed their peers were going hungry,” Kudrimoti said. Last school year, the pantry received 400 visits; it’s already gotten that many visits in the fall semester.
In addition to the Big Blue Pantry, UK students and staff have started other initiatives, mostly through the student group SStop Hunger (Sustainable Solutions to Overcome Poverty). For example, SStop Hunger worked with Aramark to get 2,000 “swipes,” or free visits to dining halls. The Campus Kitchen at UK, which is focused on decreasing food waste, provides a healthy dinner to at least 150 students a week.
SStop Hunger is the UK chapter of Universities Fighting World Hunger, which UK President Eli Capilouto signed onto in 2014. Its director, senior Beau Revlett, said students and staff are attempting to work on the problem, but UK needs a central resource to help students with food and housing because current efforts help only a small percentage of those affected.
“There needs to be a designated person or center for food and housing insecurity because it’s not clear to students or staff whose job it is and whose responsibility it is,” Revlett said. “Food and housing is too expensive on campus.”
Greg Heileman, associate provost for student and academic life, said his division is coordinating numerous efforts, including a presidential wellness initiative.
“It’s embedded throughout the campus with folks looking at this issue, not just here but nationally,” Heileman said. “Our job is to coordinate efforts.”
He also pointed to UK LEADS, a program started two years ago that gives students grants to meet whatever unmet financial need they have. It’s a move away from purely academic merit-based aid to aid based on those who need it most, with the goal of improving graduation and retention rates.
UK officials said this program is why the out-of-pocket costs for a student whose household income is approximately $20,000 a year has dropped from $465 per semester to $204.
“The LEADS program is addressing these underlying societal issues,” Heileman said.
Katharine Broton, an education professor at University of Iowa who has studied the issue of unmet student need for many years, said some universities are concerned they’ll be blamed for high rates of food insecurity, “while in reality the problem is a complex one tied to lack of college affordability.
“We don’t have good longitudinal data to look at how this problem has changed, but what we do know is the net price of college is increasing, financial aid has not kept pace, and wages have stagnated,” Broton said. “I think the GAO report that came out is a really important step in the process — the federal government has acknowledge that food insecurity is a problem, it’s undermining our investment in higher education and there is a role for the federal government to play in addressing it.”
Cindy Garcia said she hopes that federal, state and local policy makers will find solutions to an issue that burdened her while at UK. She transferred to UK from Bluegrass Community and Technical College two years ago and was taken aback by the expense of food.
She still lives at home with her parents, and didn’t have a dining plan, but the family’s financial situation was precarious and Garcia depended on her two jobs to help pay for food.
“I wanted to feed my body sustainably and I was finding that really difficult,” she said. “If you’re already paying so much for tuition, having to add onto it can be financial stress that’s overwhelming.”