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Local studies on food, housing among college students reveal critical findings


Last updated 3/20/2019 at 8:31pm

Two studies completed in 2018 highlight the necessity to support the basic needs of college students in the two critical areas of food and housing.

Focusing on the needs of students in southwestern Pennsylvania, the studies were conducted through grants from Eden Hall Foundation and have implications for institutions of higher education nationally.

The study on college food insecurity conducted by Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank and the University of Pittsburgh Office of Child Development titled The Campus Cupboard Study: Needs Assessment of Collegiate Food Insecurity in Southwestern Pennsylvania collected responses from more than 6,000 students across 14 college campuses in southwestern Pennsylvania. It is among the largest samples studied in research on food insecurity among college students.

“Eden Hall Foundation believes a strong safety net is essential for all people to thrive. Individuals may experience food, housing and economic insecurity at various points in their lives, but college students are extremely susceptible to these challenges,” stated Sylvia Fields, executive director. “Food pantries, campus cupboards, innovative housing solutions can play a critical role in meeting students’ most basic of needs, providing a foundation from which students can learn, grow and flourish.”

The schools that participated in the food insecurity study are: California University; Carlow University; Carnegie Mellon University; Chatham University; Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC); Duquesne University; Indiana University of Pennsylvania; Penn State University, regional campuses; Point Park University; Seton Hill University; and, University of Pittsburgh

The results are startling: 29 percent of students from 14 college and university campuses in the Pittsburgh region face moderate or high levels of food insecurity. This level of food insecurity is more than twice the 12 percent national rate for U.S. adults.

The most frequently cited experience of food scarcity was inability to afford balanced meals; 71 percent of students reported this experience. About half of students had run out of food and couldn’t afford to buy more (46 percent), cut the size of or skipped meals (52 percent) or ate less than they should because they lacked money to purchase food (48 percent). Forty-one percent had gone hungry because they could not afford food.

Food insecurity affects student health and wellness. A majority of students experiencing food insecurity indicated that limited food supply affected their mental (52 percent) and/or physical (61 percent) health.

“The reality of childhood hunger is well-known, and fortunately school-based and summer food programs are in place to address this need. What happens to students that complete high school and goes on to college is not as well-known,” said Lisa Scales, president and CEO of Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.

“While the results are staggering, I am also filled with hope. With a better understanding of the challenges college students are facing, I know that working alongside our region’s colleges we will ensure that students have access to the nutrition they need to be successful.”

The study on college housing insecurity conducted by the Department of Community Engagement at Point Park University and the Pittsburgh Council on Higher Education (PCHE) titled Examining Housing Insecurity Among Pittsburgh-Area College Students engaged college administrators in focus groups and interviews about their perception of housing insecurity and basic needs on their campuses and collected survey responses from more than 1,800 students across nine PCHE member college campuses throughout the greater Pittsburgh region.

“PCHE – Pittsburgh Council on Higher Education and its member institutions continue to look for ways to support the success of our students. This means that partnering with outside agencies, committing resources and outreach efforts and establishing best practices in tackling food and housing insecurity are a priority,” said Karina Chavez, executive director of PCHE – Pittsburgh Council on Higher Education.

“The partnerships that exist with Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank and the support from the Eden Hall Foundation has allowed us to be proactive in identifying and assessing those students in need through our latest study. This has led to establishing food pantries on campuses and implementing other support resources that could address challenges facing students including housing, transportation, counseling or employment.”

The schools that participated in the housing insecurity study are: Carlow University; Carnegie Mellon University; Chatham University; Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC); Duquesne University; LaRoche College; Point Park University; Robert Morris University; and, University of Pittsburgh.

Campus administrators who participated in the focus groups and interviews identified several basic needs including food insecurity, textbooks, hygiene products, child care, transportation and legal assistance. Additionally, administrators indicated a desire for more institutional data regarding housing insecurity to further understand the scope of the problem in southwestern Pennsylvania.

Of the students who participated in the housing insecurity study, 19.8 percent reported sleeping in non-traditional housing such as a shelter, couch surfing, transitional or group homes in the last 12 months. Additionally, 12.2 percent reported to have lacked a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence since starting college.

The largest population of survey respondents were first-generation college students. These students were more likely to take out credit card debt to pay for living expenses, be responsible for financially supporting family members and were more likely to have lacked a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence since starting college.

Both food and housing insecurity among college students affect other areas of their lives. The most commonly cited problem identified by surveyed students was academic performance; 59 percent of students surveyed in the college hunger study stated that food insecurity was a barrier to performing to their full academic ability. Additionally, 53 percent of students reported that their job performance suffered.

While most students experiencing food and housing insecurity expressed a willingness to use campus services they also expressed that they have not done so because they either felt that their situation was not serious enough to warrant using the services or because of a fear of stigma.

To address the issue of food insecurity among college students, Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank is working directly with colleges and universities to establish campus pantries and to address the issue of stigma that exists on campuses.

Of the institutions that participated in the study, the campuses that have an existing campus pantry are California University, CCAC, University of Pittsburgh and Point Park University. Following the completion of this study Carnegie Mellon University opened a pantry on campus.

To address student housing insecurity, PCHE is working with its member institutions to implement PCHE-wide student assistance programs; PCHE-wide training for students, staff and faculty to increase awareness of issues and resources; and to build PCHE-wide campus-community partnerships that will build networks between housing insecure students and local rental companies as well as partner with local agencies and organizations.

The complete food insecurity report is available at The complete housing insecurity study is available at


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