Food insecurity, the anxiety of not knowing where one’s next meal will come from or when it will occur, is a growing trend in the US. This particular trend is almost synonymous with poverty. This work will discuss food insecurity among college students, how it impacts their short and long-term success, and ways to find a more consistent diet. This work will also touch on the importance of a healthy diet related to mental clarity, emotional states, and physical well-being.
Additionally, there is a distinct difference between how much a college student spends on food monthly vs. how much they should spend to support a nutritious diet.
Based on data from USDA that’s as recent as August 2022, college students spend as much as $447 per month on food.¹ Prior year data has that number as high as $557.² Related studies show that the average college student has less than $500.00 in savings and approximately $2000 in bills each month, including rent, transportation, utilities, etc., So the high cost of food becomes apparent. Over 40 million Americans worry about their next meal every year.³ And sample studies done at college show that up to 51% of students suffer from food insecurity-related anxiety.³ These facts, coupled with financial anxiety, growing debt, reduced job opportunities, and a medley of other socio-economic pressures, compound these fears in the modern academic.
Furthermore, the cause-and-effect relationship between food insecurity and mental instability is prevalent. Here are some of the impacts of missed meals and poor nutrition.
Increased white matter: An overproduction of white matter in the brain clogs neural pathways and leads to various negative mental states. Even without the emotional side effect, white matter causes brain fog, dampens memory, slows reaction time, causes poor sleeping habits, and causes premature aging. Most college students rely on intense studying, long hours, and complex material to earn their degrees. White matter directly hinders all of the habits mentioned above.⁴
Negative mental state: Negative mental states include anxiety, depression, apathy, irritability, etc. Each of these states is amplified during times of duress and poor dietary habits. Furthermore, students genetically inclined to mental illness experience more persistent symptoms. Negative mental states also prevent a person from fostering the social aspects of college, leading to stressful group events, an inability to ask for help when needed, and poor self-perception.⁵
Comorbidities: Comorbidities are illnesses that occur simultaneously and independently of each other. However, comorbid illnesses are also defined as having identical symptoms, making them difficult to diagnose accurately. For example, a college student with food insecurity may develop anxiety related to their insecurity. And, separately, they may experience gut-brain complications due to severe stress. Treating anxiety doesn’t balance out the gut-brain connection. And treating just the gut-brain connection doesn’t treat anxiety.⁶
Also worth mentioning are general health complications for pre-existing conditions. For example, students with diabetes or celiac have strict diets that they may be unable to maintain consistently.
All of the symptoms listed above cause a negative cycle. For example, poor eating habits can lead to depression. Depression can lead to poor eating habits. Ad infinitum.
Breaking the cycle of food insecurities is essential to the individual college student and academia as a whole. However, there is a small level of personal responsibility. Which raises the question, what options do they have?
The Average College Student’s Grocery Bill
The average college student either has a dining hall meal plan or personally purchases most of their meals. Here’s the breakdown for either.
Dining Hall Meal Plans
A dining hall meal plan ranges from $250- $750.00 a month.⁷ These purchases are made at the start of the semester. However, as mentioned, food insecurity is widely experienced by impoverished students. This means the additional upfront cost of a dining hall meal plan on top of tuition can be outside their budget. This is especially true for impoverished academics working their way through college. And considering the minimum amount for a semester’s meal plan is $3000 with a high of $9000, it’s easy to see why it can be unaffordable.⁷
Additionally, many colleges mandate meal plans for first-year students to offset the lack of a kitchen area in their dorm room or shared space.
At Home Meals
The average at-home meal costs $447 a month, as mentioned above. However, the rising cost of food and the inherently more expensive diets required by certain medical conditions can inflate that number. The biggest downside to home-cooked meals is the potentially non-nutritious meals themselves. While this particular factor falls primarily on the individual, it’s worth noting that a study of over 5,200 students shows that approx 86% of them don’t eat a balanced diet.⁸ Which in turn causes them to spend more on food as they’re hungrier more often.
The Average College Student’s Eating Out Expenses
There’s limited data on exactly how much a college student spends per month eating out. However, the average American spends approx $200 on eating out or ordering. However, some studies report the number as high as $340.⁹ The discrepancy between the totals is due to the price difference of food based on location and other local economic factors.
The Average College Student’s Meal Plan Expenses
While college meal plans can be upwards of $700 – not all of them cover every meal. Alternatives include meal kits which, on average, cost $300.⁸ However, meal kits only cover a max of 4 meals a week. Assuming the three meals per day standard, students will exhaust their options after 1-2 days. We can extrapolate from the prior data that roughly $200 will be needed to cover the remaining meals.
Other Interesting Data Points
- Students that don’t have food insecurities have an average GPA of 3.50-4.00. In comparison, students with food insecurities average 2.50.⁷
- Students spend roughly $93 on alcohol per month. This total is not included in any of the averages mentioned in this work.
- Vegan options are the least expensive for students, with an average of $200.
What College Students Can Do to Optimize Their Food Budget
Buying inexpensive food with high nutritional value, like chicken, pasta, eggs, etc., are the best option for budget diets. Adding high nutritional yeast to meals can also help a food plan last longer. As for eating out, tracking restaurant expenses can help students find the balance between quality and budget. Lastly, avoiding traditional fast food is a money saver. $10 burgers simply don’t provide the same value as grocery store alternatives.
College students have an uphill battle regarding food security, but with intelligent financial choices, they can slightly better their situations.
- Spending money for college students
- Budgeting for college students
- Average college student spending
- Average college student food budget