A team of Virginia Tech faculty and graduate students are contributing to the national conversation on food access and security for college students, and informing proposed strategies to address the issue through data-informed university programs and policies.

In response to a growing national concern, the team conducted an extensive research study and has released a report aimed at documenting food security and access issues among Virginia Tech undergraduate and graduate students. Among the overarching results, the report reveals that students who potentially need food assistance may not know where to look for help, and administrative and/or social barriers related to existing on- and off-campus services may prevent students from seeking help even if they know it is available.

“Since many academic institutions have been working to address low food security among their student bodies, there is now an emerging set of best practices and approaches that can inform actions at Virginia Tech,” said Ralph Hall, associate professor in the School of Public and International Affairs and one of the lead faculty for the study. “As is presented in the report, we believe the university has collective responsibility to ensure that no student at Virginia Tech goes hungry or is unable to access nutritious foods, and to create a community that nurtures learning and growth for all of its members.”

According to the study, 29 percent of undergraduates and 35 percent of graduate students at Virginia Tech are classified as having low or very low food security. “Low food security” means a student has a reduced diet quality whereas “very low food security” means a student is experiencing disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake. Hall said the findings in the Virginia Tech study are comparable with those from a study by The Hope Center of 33 participating four-year institutions that estimated that 41 percent of students had low or very low food security.

The study also shows that certain segments of the campus community are more likely to have a low or very low food security status. These include black/African-American and Hispanic/Latino students, students who are receiving Pell grant or financing that requires repayment, students with low GPAs, and students with disabilities. Those students who were not on a meal plan were also more likely to experience food security and access challenges.

“This study provides essential data that Virginia Tech can utilize to better address student needs,” said Maria Elisa Christie, director for Women and Gender in International Development in the Center for International Research, Education and Development (CIRED). “With the university meeting its inclusion and diversity goals to recruit under-represented and under-served populations, which are groups that may be at higher risk for food insecurity, we have a responsibility to cultivate the best conditions for every student’s success.”

Jessica Agnew, a member of the research team and Ph.D. candidate, said a number of barriers to accessing quality foods for a balanced and nutritious diet also came to light during their analysis. “We found that there is a lack of culturally acceptable foods available in Blacksburg or students have difficulty cooking nutritious meals due to health problems,” said Agnew. “Our report identifies a broad range of next steps that Virginia Tech and the local community can consider when designing programs or services that ensure no student is hungry or is unable to access healthy and nutritious foods during their studies.”

Although Virginia Tech is not an outlier among peer institutions in students with food security and access issues, the report has been shared with university leaders and members of the campus community, and presents an opportunity to better understand the issues and how to actively and collectively support students in need.

“Virginia Tech is committed to the wellbeing of every student on our campus and we recognize the importance of students having access to an adequate and well-balanced diet,” said Cyril Clarke, executive vice president and provost. “This report will help us better recognize the food security needs here at Virginia Tech so that we can work together to develop effective programs and resources while being sensitive to the stigmatic concerns surrounding this issue for many students.”

Currently, Virginia Tech students with food security and access needs are able to seek assistance through the Dean of Students Office. During the 2018-19 academic year, the Dean of Students Office distributed approximately $15,000, through an emergency assistance program sponsored by the Murdock family, to 20 students that identified food insecurity as a primary need for assistance.

Through a partnership with campus ministries, the Dean of Students Office also refers students for ongoing needs with food assistance to 209 Manna Ministries, which has operated since 2013 as a food pantry solely for college students. The assistance is open to all students regardless of their affiliation and is not limited to those with a religious or faith-based identity.

Along with the university’s commitment to support students in need, students themselves are finding their own ways to get engaged in addressing and developing support mechanisms to aid their fellow students. Several colleges, departments, and student groups on campus have expressed interest in organizing campaigns and efforts to support and facilitate aid for their fellow students.

Despite the number of students identified in the study who had food access issues, only nine percent of those who sometimes or often did not have enough to eat during the past 12 months reported receiving food assistance. The study found that the main reason these students did not seek assistance was they felt others deserved assistance more than they did, they did not know that they were eligible for support, or they were concerned about the stigma associated with food assistance.

Hall said that first, and most importantly, if any student is experiencing hunger they should ask for help or speak with someone about their situation. “Virginia Tech does have mechanisms in place to provide students in need with immediate assistance,” said Hall. “An important first step for Virginia Tech in highlighting this issue will be to hold a series of conversations or workshops with stakeholders, on and off campus, to discuss the findings from the study and develop strategies to address them.”

Throughout this process, Hall said his research team will be available to answer questions about the study and highlight resources that may be of assistance. “Under the leadership of Shyam Ranganathan and Christian Lucero, in the Department of Statistics, our team also plans to publicly release the results via a data visualization portal that will enable people to visually explore the data themselves. In addition, we will plan to develop academic publications that should provide a more sophisticated analysis of the data,” Hall said.

The full report from the food security and access study is available online. Any student who is in need or would like to know more about the food security and access support Virginia Tech offers should contact the Dean of Students Office at dean.students@vt.edu or VT Engage at engage@vt.edu

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