Of the 8,652 students UW-Madison surveyed in 2016, 1,038 students reported they were struggling with housing or food insecurity, according to the 2016 Campus Climate Survey.
That makes up 12 percent of the 2016 UW-Madison student body.
Not only do food-insecure college students have to struggle with the stress of midterms, the mental toll of heavy class loads and poor sleep schedules, but they also have to worry about where their next meal will come from. This stress can lead to a breakdown in social relationships, worsening sleeping habits and low energy.
The Wisconsin HOPE Lab, a Wisconsin-based team that researches food and housing insecurity across the U.S., defines food insecurity as “the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods, or the ability to acquire such foods in a socially acceptable manner.”
While it can manifest in affluent students who feel too guilty to ask their parents for more money due to high tuition and housing prices, food insecurity often stems from low-economic status and can cause students to feel alienated and isolated due to their lack of funds.
“The fact that everybody else during spring break is like, 'Where are you going?' and you're like, 'I'm staying here, I can't go anywhere,' and feeling like you're left out and different and people don't understand you can be stressful,” said Sarah Halpern-Meekin, an expert on poverty and social relationships.
Halpern-Meekin’s research on poverty suggests social relationships have a significant impact on a student’s mental wellness. When a student does not feel they can reach out and talk about their problems, it can further negatively affect their relationships with close peers such as roommates.
Further, food insecurity expert Lydia Zepeda’s research indicates how financial instability can strain social relationships when students cannot afford to go out or shop at costly grocery stores.
“Among the students I interviewed, I found that they hid the fact that they were food insecure from friends, family and roommates,” Zepeda said in an email interview. “They might not even want to be in their own apartment because it is hard being around roommates who have enough food.”
This insecurity not only removes a student from their peers and causes social isolation, but also leads to different issues with a student’s mind and body. Physically, students can suffer from slowed heart rates, slowed metabolism, lower energy levels, worse moods and weight gain. Overall, it keeps a person from operating at their best.
“Our bodies are very complex and they require a wide range of foods because a wide range of foods give you a wide range of nutrients,” Senior Dietitian at University Health Services Marcy Braun said. “If diet is limited or too heavily process[ed], you just don't get what you need for good functioning.”
Negative mental effects emerge in addition to physical ones. Food insecurity not only increases stress hormones because students do not know where their next meal will come from, but it can also increase anxiety and depression levels, as well as decrease one’s ability to process information. According to Braun, a lack of dietary variety and diverse nutrients affects students’ functionality in concrete ways.
“Students who are food insecure are going to be stressed and distracted at the very least,” Zepeda said. “This has an adverse affect on their wellbeing and their academic performance.”
The stress of worrying about where one’s next meal will come from also can affect sleep quality and one’s overall ability to function.
“Being sleep deprived causes more people to eat lower quality, more processed, more sugary stuff, which ultimately isn't helpful,” Braun said. “Ultimately, they need a meal. Sleep deprivation definitely affects the way people eat.”
And when students struggle to get quality sleep, their academics and grades feel the immediate consequences. According to Braun, UHS tries to ensure that struggle doesn’t occur.
“If a barrier is that they don't have enough to eat, we need to help them deal with that because it is just not a good state of affairs,” Braun said. “It does not help them do their best in college."
Campus clubs such as Slow Food-UW assist students in challenging financial situations and hope to create a community where students can come together while they eat and share food.
Struggling community members can get a free meal while other more affluent members can donate to Slow Food’s website. Slow Food prepares a meal every Monday night at The Crossing at 6 p.m. for all Madison residents, no matter their income.
While campus clubs work to lessen the stress of food insecurity on students and the university provides a number of services, Zepeda suggests the university can improve upon a number of areas, including paying student hourlies and graduate assistants a living wage.
“Students should not have to work multiple jobs, skip meals and forgo medical care to go to university,” Zepeda said. “The state Legislature needs to reverse its decades-long trend of cutting funding to the UW; their cuts have resulted in tuition increases. And obviously, we need more funding for financial aid.”