“Nearly half our college students are going hungry,” presidential candidate Bernie Sanders proclaimed in late November. Sanders’s tweet went viral, spurring more than 20,000 re-tweets and “likes.” Starving college students are a new rallying cry for social-justice warriors, spurring demands for new federal handouts and maybe even
a college student-meal program modeled after school lunches.
Some colleges are hyping hungry students to spur donations:
- Johnson County Community College in Kansas publicized a “Giving Tuesday” logo announcing, “$7 feed a hungry college student for one day. $49 feed one for one week.” Was this pitch inspired by the famous 1987 television fundraising ad in which Sally Struthers explained that 70 cents a day could feed a hungry Ethiopian child? The college neglected to buttress its appeal with photos of emaciated Kansas students.
- The Giving Tuesday pitch for Manor College in suburban Philadelphia packs a double whammy, promising to help both hungry students and the campus Bird Feed program.
- Portland Community College is seeking to raise $50,000 on Giving Tuesday for its food pantries, asserting that “two of three Portland Community College students have faced food insecurity.”
In reality, the College-Hunger Hoax is largely the result of a bait-and-switch by activists and social scientists. Rather than seeking to measure actual hunger, questionnaires ask about the vaporous topic “food security.” Surveys rely on sentiments and opinions, not actual food consumption. If someone fears missing a single meal, he can be categorized as “food insecure” regardless of how much he ate. And if someone desired to consume better quality or more expensive cuisine (“Attention Whole Foods shoppers”), he can join the ranks of the “food insecure.”
Food-security surveys are routinely contorted in media reports as gauges of college students’ hunger, if not starvation. Typical misreporting shined in a New York Times headline this past May: “Tuition or Dinner? Nearly Half of College Students Surveyed in a New Report Are Going Hungry.”
But even with the skewed definition of the problem, the numbers of supposedly malnourished students defy common sense. On the basis of a thorough Census Bureau national survey, the Agriculture Department reported last September that 5.9 percent of American households had been “food insecure” within the past 30 days. But the USDA stresses that its survey is not a measure of actual hunger.
In contrast, the most widely quoted annual report on the plight of college students comes from the zealots at the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice. According to their most recent report this past April, 45 percent of college students had been food-insecure in the prior 30 days.
Why would college students be 762 percent more “food insecure” than the average American? Does receiving a letter of acceptance from a college mysteriously obliterate a person’s ability to feed himself, or what? The answer lies in part in ludicrously biased surveys. Last year, Hope Center researchers reported that 26 percent of students with a college meal plan were “food insecure.” But how did students’ oversleeping and missing breakfast become a national crisis?
The Hope Center survey uses a much broader definition of the problem than the USDA survey. According to the Hope Center, “Food insecurity is the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods, or the ability to acquire such foods in a socially acceptable manner.” If someone dreaded being seen food shopping at Walmart, would that mean he was food-insecure because he was too stressed to pay Whole Foods prices? If someone suffered from agoraphobia (fear of crowds) and could not bear going to the college mess hall even though he had paid for a meal plan, would that qualify as “food insecurity”? “Socially acceptable manner” is the equivalent of a statistical garbage can, easily filled by respondents’ discontent.
The Hope Center report gravely notes that 40 percent of students “cut the size of meals” because of cash shortages. That is portrayed as an unmitigated evil, but obesity is a far greater problem for college enrollees than hunger. The percentage of students who were overweight or obese rose from 23 percent to 41 percent during their four years in college, according to a 2017 Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior report. A study published in July in Health Education Journal reported that American “undergraduate students gain more weight in the first year in college than at any other point in their lives.” A 2016 study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior found that the average student gained ten pounds during his four years in college. Besides, few students are svelte when they arrived on campus: high-school students were 30 times more likely to be overweight than underweight, according to a study published in Obesity. It was only eight years ago that USA Today heralded a new campaign: “Fighting the obesity epidemic on college campuses.”
The Hope Center said that 17 percent of respondents had been homeless in the past year — a neon light their data roundup is less reliable than a $3 bill. Fewer than 6 percent of students who received their questionnaire bothered to respond.
Survey results were also skewed because women were far more likely to respond than men (71 percent versus 27 percent of respondents), and they are more “food insecure” than male students (47 percent versus 42 percent). Female college students spend an average of 10 hours a day on their cell phones, according to a 2014 study.
There have been numerous studies of college food-insecurity in recent years and the results vary so widely as to cast doubt on most reports. The College and University Food Bank Alliance asserted that 30 percent of college students are food-insecure. Portland Community College claimed that almost 70 percent of its students had been food-insecure. The Urban Institute, a respected Washington research organization, relied on credible federal data to estimate that “11 percent of households with a student in a four-year college experienced food insecurity.” A 2019 Government Accountability Office report noted that estimates and standards for food-insecurity calculations were all over the map. For instance, a 2017 study published in the American Journal of Health Promotion found that “15 percent of student respondents at one four-year college experienced food insecurity, with an additional 16 percent of student respondents at that college estimated to be at-risk for food insecurity.” What is “at-risk for food insecurity”? Does it mean that someone would have second thoughts late at night about not having eaten another slice of pizza or what? Inside Higher Education reported one survey that concluded that “food insecurity” among college students was 9 percent.
A far more accurate gauge of Americans’ food deprivation is available from international data. The United Nations estimated in 2017 that fewer than 2.5 percent of Americans are undernourished and that 1.4 percent suffered from severe food-insecurity. That report tracks with a 2012 Journal of the American Medical Association analysis that noted that “seven times as many (low-income) children are obese as are underweight.”
A leisure class
The hubbub over collegiate hunger fails to note that college nowadays is practically a part-time diversion even for full-time students. Students spend far less time studying than their predecessors — down from 24 hours a week in 1961 to 14 hours in 2010. The Washington Post noted in 2012 that “the typical student today spends 27 hours a week in study and class time, roughly the same time commitment expected of students in a modern full-day kindergarten.” Colleges are “marketing themselves as havens for fun and recreation, and students are taking them at their word…. It’s a vacation spa. It’s Club Med,” economists Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks noted in a 2012 study entitled “Leisure College USA.” But expecting students to use free time to get a job to feed themselves is beyond the pale.
Perhaps the biggest danger from the College-Hunger Hoax is that it will justify new political takeovers of another swath of American life. According to some advocates, the only viable solution is a new federal assistance program. A Washington Post article noted that “advocates have called on the federal government to provide free or reduced-cost meals at colleges, as is already done in primary and secondary schools.” So politicians should treat adults like helpless children, no matter how old they become or how much aid they already receive? Should we presume that attending college classes inflicts the equivalent of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, making students unable to care for themselves? Besides, federal school-meal programs have been perpetual dietary disasters, deluging kids with excessive sugar and fat and spawning obesity across the land.
There are plenty of individual students who miss meals and struggle financially, but that has been the plight of some college students going back centuries. Many colleges would be compassionate to offer lower-price meal plans in lieu of the five-star buffets they increasingly serve. Many students are justifiably perturbed at soaring tuition costs for diplomas of shaky value. But they were not conscripted into higher education.
Demagoguery on hungry college students is often part of a push for universal free college tuition. The people who have enrolled in that crusade seem to be clueless of the danger of the vast increase in political power that would result from a government takeover of college costs. In 1942 in the case of Wickard v. Filburn, the Supreme Court declared, “It is hardly lack of due process for the government to regulate that which it subsidizes.” The promises of today’s politicians will do nothing to protect future students from the exactions and restrictions imposed on subsidy recipients by future administrations.
Many college students responded rapturously and righteously to the Bernie Sanders tweet late last year. Any student who misses a meal for any reason is supposedly an example of social injustice. But the sense of entitlement can be disabling — or at least deter some students from taking a job to cover their cost of living. But no one has explained why becoming a gender-studies major magically entitles a person to be fed by other Americans’ tax dollars.
Bogus statistics and hysteria make poor public policy. Viewing college students as a group that should be wards of the state, by definition unable to take care of themselves, would beget a vast expansion in government power. In the long run, obliterating individuals’ responsibility for feeding themselves is the worst possible direction, both for freedom and healthy diets.
This article was originally published in the March 2020 edition of Future of Freedom.