Why Are So Many College Students Going Hungry?

By Joseph Mottola ’23, St. John’s University School of Law; LSC Summer 2021 Law Student Intern

SNAP flyer
SNAP flyer by Joseph Andrews, Georgetown ’23, LSC Research Assistant and Undergraduate Intern

A significant percentage of American college students are hungry and don’t know where tomorrow’s meals will come from – and they are not utilizing the food assistance programs intended to alleviate their hunger.

In 2019, it was estimated that approximately one-third of college students suffered from inadequate access to food.[1]  It is a stark and disheartening statistic that has only worsened as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, including the move to virtual learning. One study found that over 20% of college students nationwide faced increasing hunger after the onset of the pandemic.[2] In MA, a survey conducted by the Greater Boston Food Bank indicated that overall food insecurity increased by 55% from 2019 to 2020.[3]

However, despite increasing rates of hunger and the expanded availability of food assistance programs such as SNAP, shockingly few college students participate in these programs. The so-called “SNAP Gap” – the gap between the number of individuals that qualify for SNAP and the number receiving benefits – is enormous. In 2020, the MA Department of Transitional Assistance estimated that over 705,000 MA residents that are likely eligible for SNAP were not participating in the program.[4] For college students, it is estimated that 57% of low-income, at-risk students potentially qualifying for SNAP are not receiving benefits.[5]

There are many possible barriers to SNAP use among college students, including lack of awareness of the programs, concerns about eligibility, and difficulty navigating the complex SNAP restrictions specific to college students. While the causes of college student hunger are varied, the negative effects are clear – food insecurity is linked to lower grades and increased drop-outs.[6]

The Safety Net Project has partnered with the Boston Public Library for a series of financial empowerment sessions aimed at raising awareness of SNAP eligibility among groups that often experience food insecurity but may not realize they qualify for benefits. If you would like to learn more about SNAP, and the challenges faced by college students, veterans, single adults, and others seeking food assistance, you are invited to attend one of the Safety Net Project’s virtual SNAP presentations. 

The presentations will be held on on Thursdays from 10:30AM – 12PM on the following dates: August 26th, September 30th, October 28th, and November 18th. Register here to join us! 


[1] Advances in Nutrition, Nikolaus, et al., “Food Insecurity among College Students in the United States: A Scoping Review” (Oct. 2019)
[2] Nutrients, Kaley Mialki, et al., “Covid-19 and College Students: Food Security Status before and after the Onset of the Pandemic” (Nutrients, Feb.2021)
[3] Greater Boston Food Bank, “Gaps in Food Access During the Covid-19 Pandemic in Massachusetts” (May 2021)
[4] Department of Transitional Assistance, SNAP Gap Data (Dec. 2020)
[5] US Governmental Accountability Office, Food Insecurity Report: Better Information Could Help Eligible College Students Access Federal Food Assistance Benefits (December 2018)
[6] Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, Broton and Goldrick-Rab, “The Dark Side of College (Un)affordability: Food and Housing Insecurity in Higher Education.” (2016)

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