by: Melissa Munn-Chernoff, Ph.D.
In July 2018, Dr. Jessica Baker and I were fortunate to receive funding through the Carolina Women’s Center to conduct research on mental health and well-being in first-year UNC students via our Carolina College Assessment on Research and Education in Science (i.e., Carolina C.A.R.E.S.) study. The focus of the project was to assess the prevalence of food insecurity among first-year students prior to arriving to UNC, how many individuals reported food insecurity since starting at UNC, and how food insecurity was associated with various mental health outcomes during the first year of college.
(Caption: Dr. Jessica Baker discusses the importance of our research study.)
Food insecurity, lacking “access to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members,”1 may not be a topic that comes to mind when thinking about college students. However, it is a growing concern among college students across the United States. In fact, prior research has demonstrated that between 14% and 60% of college students are food insecure.2-9 That number is higher than the national average of 12%.1 College students are also at risk for having adverse mental health outcomes.10 Though limited, some studies in college students report associations between food insecurity and these mental health outcomes.3,6,11,12 More research is needed to better understand the association between food insecurity and specific mental health outcomes, including eating disorders (See Food Insecurity and Eating Disorder Symptoms).
In our research study, we found that 15% of first-year college students reported being food insecure in the year prior to coming to UNC. These individuals had significantly higher scores on body dissatisfaction and restricting (efforts to avoid or reduce food consumption) than their peers who did not report food insecurity in that same time frame. Conversely, students who were food insecure were less likely to report past-year drug misuse than their food secure peers. There were no differences in levels of depression and anxiety symptoms or alcohol and nicotine misuse between students who were food insecure versus food secure. We completed a follow-up assessment with students in Spring 2019 to examine how many students became food insecure during the transition to college. In other words, how many students who were not food insecure prior to coming to UNC became food insecure at UNC. Our study showed that 20% of students reported developing food insecurity during the first year transition to college. We found this number to be jolting. No student transitioning to college should be faced with the experience of not having enough food. Taken together, these findings suggest that food insecurity is a serious issue for college students, and among other adverse outcomes, is associated with elevations in specific eating disorder symptoms.
(Caption: Dr. Melissa Munn-Chernoff describes how our study was conducted.)
After our presentation, Dr. Baker and I did a Q&A with various faculty and staff across campus. We were encouraged by the questions we received and advice on how to proceed with this project. It was great to hear from others who recognize the serious problem of food insecurity on campus. Participants also helped us brainstorm ways to improve access to healthy food to students at UNC, such as offering free or reduced meal plans to students who need extra financial assistance.
(Caption: Friendly conversations in our discussion panel.)
We are incredibly grateful to the Carolina Women’s Center for their funding and continued support with this project, and to Rachel Guerra and the numerous undergraduate and post-graduate students who assisted with recruitment and data management. If you would like to learn more about how to participate in Carolina C.A.R.E.S. or to get involved, please visit https://carolinacaresunc.org/ or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you would like more information about area food banks, including one on campus, please visit Carolina Cupboard. For more information about campus mental health services, please see Campus Health.
Photo Credits: Grace Wu, PhD, RN, Post-doctoral Fellow working with Carolina C.A.R.E.S.
1. Coleman-Jensen A, Rabbit MP, Gregory CA, Singh A. Household food security in the United States in 2016. In: Agriculture USDo, ed. Economic Research Report. Washington, D.C.: United States Department of Agriculture; 2017:173.
2. Chaparro MP, Zaghloul SS, Holck P, Dobbs J. Food insecurity prevalence among college students at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. Public Health Nutrition 2009;12:2097-103.
3. Bruening M, van Woerden I, Todd M, Laska MN. Hungry to learn: The prevalence and effects of food insecurity on health behaviors and outcomes over time among a diverse sample of university freshmen. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 2018;15:9.
4. Morris LM, Smith S, Davis J, Null DB. The prevalence of food security and insecurity among Illinois University students. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior 2016;48:376-82 e1.
5. Patton-Lopez MM, Lopez-Cevallos DF, Cancel-Tirado DI, Vazquez L. Prevalence and correlates of food insecurity among students attending a midsize rural university in Oregon. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior 2014;46:209-14.
6. Payne-Sturges DC, Tjaden A, Caldeira KM, Vincent KB, Arria AM. Student hunger on campus: Food insecurity among college students and implications for academic institutions. American Journal of Health Promotion 2018;32:349-54.
7. Dubick J, Mathews B, Cady C. Hunger on campus: The challenge of food insecurity for college students. Boston, MA 2016.
8. Gaines A, Robb CA, Knol LL, Sickler S. Examining the role of financial factors, resources and skills in predicting food security status among college students. International Journal of Consumer Studies 2014;38:374-84.
9. Hughes R, Serebryanikova I, Donaldson K, Leveritt M. Student food insecurity: The skeleton in the university closet. Nutrition & Dietetics 2011;68:27-32.
10. Auerbach RP, Alonso J, Axinn WG, et al. Mental disorders among college students in the World Health Organization World Mental Health Surveys. Psychological Medicine 2016;46:2955-70.
11. Bruening M, Argo K, Payne-Sturges D, Laska MN. The struggle is real: A systematic review of rood insecurity on postsecondary education campuses. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics 2017;117:1767-91.
12. Darling KE, Fahrenkamp AJ, Wilson SM, D’Auria AL, Sato AF. Physical and mental health outcomes associated with prior food insecurity among young adults. Journal of Health Psychology 2017;22:572-81.