Loeschner Lecturer Addresses a Growing Crisis: Hunger on College Campuses

Loeschner Lecturer Addresses a Growing Crisis: Hunger on College Campuses

Sara Goldrick-RabSara Goldrick-Rab: "College matters, but we have to get real about what's broken so we can fix it," Temple University professor Sara Goldrick-Rab, whose research inspired the documentary film “Hungry to Learn,” urged universities to collect data on hunger and food insecurity among their students in the latest installment of the School of Education and Social Policy's Nancy and Ray Loeschner Leadership Series at Northwestern University.

During the virtual event, moderated by School of Education and Social Policy Dean David Figlio, Goldrick-Rab highlighted common misconceptions about hunger on college campuses, and explained why college students often can’t access federal food assistance programs like SNAP.

“Universities need a task force with people from all over campus taking hunger seriously and really looking at it on an ongoing basis," she said. "Not because it's a social justice issue, frankly, but because it's a college retention, graduation, and quality of learning issue."

College matters, but we have to get real about what's broken so we can fix it,” she added. “And this system is not working for the vast majority of people going through it.”

Goldrick-Rab is president and founder of The Hope Center for College, Community and Justice and professor of sociology and medicine at Temple. She is best known for her innovative research on food and housing insecurity in higher education, having led the five largest national studies on the subject, and for her work on making public higher education free.

Goldrick-Rab is also the chief strategy officer for Emergency Aid at Edquity, a student financial success and emergency aid company. She founded Believe in Students, a nonprofit distributing emergency aid.

"Hungry to Learn," produced by Emmy- and Peabody Award-winning broadcaster Soledad O'Brien, follows four college students who often don’t know where they will get their next meal. The film, which can be viewed can be viewed on yahoo!life features Goldrick-Rab’s work at the Hope Center in Philadelphia.

Figlio served as one of Goldrick-Rab’s mentors from 2010-15 as part of the William T. Grant program. During the event, he praised her intellect and her “desire to put rigorous research into action to empower vulnerable college students. "She truly walks the walk,” he said.

Goldrick-Rab is the eighth distinguished speaker–and the first to present virtually–in the Loeschner Leadership series, which began in 2013 and presents visionary trailblazers in education and other fields.

Previous events included Steven Romick, portfolio manager at First Pacific Advisors; Anthony Jack, assistant professor at Harvard University and author of The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students; Mary Daley, president and chief executive officer of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco; Eve Ewing, writer and sociologist of education at the University of Chicago; alumnus Chuck Friedman, corporate vice president of Microsoft Edge; Mischa Fisher, economist and data scientist; Eva Moskowitz, founder and CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools; and Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America.

The lecture was established with a gift from SESP alumnus Ray Loeschner (MA57) of Grand Rapids, Michigan, the former president of Olivet University and a pioneer in higher education who wants to help undergrads engage with leaders from the policy and political worlds. Loeschner also received his PhD from Northwestern in 1962 and served as an assistant football and track coach.

Goldrick-Rab’s latest book, Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream, won the 2018 Grawemeyer Award, and was featured on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. Soledad O’Brien named Goldrick-Rab her “food policy hero.”

Excerpts from the Loeschner Lecture follow:

Q: You’re a scholar, as well as someone who seeks to directly affect change. How are these complements and how do these objectives sometimes work at cross purposes?

A: There’s a critical difference between an advocate who dabbles in research to prove their position and the scholar who studies a problem, and then finds things that need to be acted on and gets involved. I put myself in the latter category. I didn't get into sociology to make college free. I had no idea at the time there were food insecure college students. I didn't come in with an advocacy agenda. I came in to do research. I love doing research. There’s something magical that happens when you're in the room with the policymaker. You're not just telling them what you read about; you’re telling them about what you learned from your own science.

Q: What are some of the most common misconceptions about food insecurity on college campuses?

A: The first is that it's not really food insecurity. It’s students being choosy. That have to eat ramen and they want to eat sushi. Another is that ‘they certainly don't look food insecure. What about the freshman 15?’ Those are folks who don't know that food insecurity is associated with unhealthy eating and obesity. A third is ‘well everybody here is on full scholarship. If they're low income they can't be food insecure.’ That misunderstands a number of things, including how food insecurity can happen.

Q: How does it occur?

A: It can be it can be due to volatility, a changing situation, or that a full ride is actually not a full ride. A full ride is based on the financial aid framework that we use, which omits a lot of really important cost that students face every day.

Q:  What makes it so hard, if not impossible for college students to access programs like SNAP?

A: SNAP has work requirements so if you're not an adult with children then you're usually subject to a 20 hour week work requirement. College quite simply does not count as work. We already know that if college students are working long hours, they're less likely to graduate. So pushing them to work even longer hours is not necessarily a good idea. It's not easy to find 20 hours a week of steady employment when you're in college. Students are competing with other part time workers for those jobs they have complicated schedules. But there are ways to deal with the work requirement issue. The biggest problem college students have about SNAP is that frankly they all believe they're not eligible. Especially students at four-year colleges. So it's really important to push that information out to them.

Q: In addition to surveying students, what can universities do?

A: Essentially college is creating poverty. It's not getting enough to eat, so you can't focus on school. Or maybe because you've got to work extra hours to get the food so you don't do the internship, go abroad, do extracurricular activities.  You don't get the returns that increase your social networks and cultural capital. Universities need to bring supports beyond food pantries to campus, and they have to make it clear that getting those supports is part of getting to graduation. The colleges that are addressing these things best do not marginalize this as an issue that only affects low-income students. Because we’ve also got middle class students who are experiencing food insecurity, for the very first time in their lives in college. 

By Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 11/18/20