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Wednesday, April 17, 2024
Empty plates are negatively affecting UW-Madison students' physical and mental health. 

Empty plates are negatively affecting UW-Madison students' physical and mental health. 

Hunger hits home: Food insecurity psychologically impacts students

Growling stomachs in the middle of exams. Spacing out during lectures. Struggling to fall asleep at night. Symptoms like these plague students on campuses across the nation who struggle with food insecurity.

At UW-Madison, 12 percent of students reported not always having the means or funds to ample food and housing, according to the 2016 Campus Climate Survey.

Students struggling to pay their tuition may not prioritize eating healthily because it may be too expensive, they may not have enough time or they think they can get by on Easy Mac and ramen. Hunger can have other negative effects, including on one’s schoolwork.

“There was a student that we interviewed at a school familiar to [Wisconsin] that was in class and said she was not paying attention to the teacher because there was a student two rows in front of her who was unwrapping a granola bar, and the student had not eaten in a day,” said Anthony Hernandez, a PhD dissertator and researcher at the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, a center for research on college financial insecurity. “And she was just fixated on that person opening that food.”

On college campuses, 36 percent of university students were food insecure in 2017, according to a study by the Wisconsin HOPE Lab.

“Food insecurity is a complicated product of several social determinants of health and is increasing in prevalence,” said Cassie Vanderwall, who is the director of the UW Health dietetic internship program and an ambulatory dietitian at UW Health. “I believe about five percent of patients at UW Health have been found to be food insecure based on the two hunger vital signs, [which are] validated screening questions.”

Students need to focus on consuming macronutrients, like carbs and protein, and micronutrients, like vitamins and minerals, Vanderwall said; otherwise, both their physical and mental health might suffer the consequences.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 11.8 percent of U.S. households were food insecure at some time during 2017, and 4.5 percent reported having very low food security. And although food insecurity is widespread across the country, few people affected by food insecurity reach out for help.

“In the United States, there is a deep and pervasive association between poverty and moral failure, the idea that people who are poor are poor because they have somehow failed to support themselves,” said Andrew Ruis, author of Eating to Learn, Learning to Eat: The Origins of School Lunch in the United States.

According to Bob McGrath, a distinguished psychologist emeritus at UW-Madison, students in need may not even open up to those closest to them for fear they might disrupt friendships, and may also suffer from self- image issues.

Vanderwall said judgment from others greatly affects a student’s motivation to ask for help. Students are less likely to reach out when they feel they will be targeted for exposing a personal problem and will then suffer on their own.

“I know [food insecurity is] not something you should be embarrassed about, but I guess I am embarrassed about it,” said an anonymous student at The Open Seat, a campus food pantry. “It puts you in a vulnerable position, to be food-insecure.”

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The student told her roommate she was food-insecure but has not told the rest of the girls who live with her. However, University Health Services is working to open up a conversation for students like her about food insecurity and to normalize assistance, according to Vanderwall.

“I would tell [other food-insecure students] there is nothing wrong with asking for help or needing help,” the student said. “I started off this school year not wanting to go anywhere because I wanted to feel like I could do it all by myself. But by having that community where other people can help you, you're also helping yourself.”

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