Food, Housing Insecurity Leads to Mental Health Struggles, Affecting College Plans - Scholarship America

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Food, Housing Insecurity Leads to Mental Health Struggles, Affecting College Plans

By Scholarship America

By Stacy Alexander Evans for Scholarship America

Each day in America, the headlines alert us to a cold reality: the kids are not alright. With teen girls taking their own lives at an unprecedented rate, and young men engaging in performative gun violence on a national stage, it is safe to say that American adolescents are facing a collective mental health crisis. Last year, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy shone a spotlight on the problem by issuing a public health advisory.

Although the pandemic certainly made things worse, over the course of their childhoods, “Gen Z” has faced mounting pressures both socially and academically, resulting in an alarming suicide rate increase of 57%. The reasons for this are complex. As “digital natives,” today’s high school students are more superficially “connected” to their peers, while at the same time frequently living in greater isolation than previous generations.

At the heart of this disjointed community, vulnerable populations face a triple threat when these social challenges are exacerbated by food insecurity and housing insufficiency. In fact, these issues are intertwined.

Dr. Colleen Heflin is Associate Dean, Chair and Professor of Public Administration and International Affairs at Syracuse University, and co-author of “Exposure to Food Insecurity During Adolescence and Educational Attainment.” In discussing the results of this work, Heflin cites three “direct pathways” that explain how food insecurity impacts educational attainment: the effect of scarcity on cognitive abilities, family bonding through shared meals (or lack thereof), and overall mental health.

Although Heflin acknowledges there are many different, concurrent factors that could affect whether or not a child attends college–the constraints of poverty, their parents’ own education level–she says she’s confident in her most stringent analysis: food security is the biggest indicator that a child will take that first critical step toward college enrollment. So the question becomes: what happens once they get there?

Continued Struggles: The College Years

For many college freshmen who experienced food insecurity or housing instability during high school, the college requirement to live in a dorm and subscribe to a multi-swipe meal plan that first year is a godsend. But making it that far means an accomplished student has essentially struck gold by gaining access to critical financial aid that covers their room and board. The truth is, many of our most vulnerable students begin their college journey under financial pressures, inheriting their families’ food insecurity and housing instability.

A significant number of these students are enrolled in community colleges. And, although they often transfer to a state universities near their homes, a recent study coming out of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health indicates that students experiencing food insecurity issues are less likely to meet their ultimate goal of graduation:

“Even after adjusting for other factors known to be linked to higher or lower educational attainment, Wolfson and colleagues found a strong inverse association between household food insecurity and educational attainment. Students from food-insecure households were 43 percent less likely to graduate from college, including with an associate’s degree; 43 percent less likely to attain a bachelor’s degree;  and 61 percent less likely to attain a graduate or professional degree, compared to non-food-insecure students.” – Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

As we know, food insecurity issues frequently happen in tandem with housing instability. Last year, the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University published its findings to their #RealCollegeSurvey. The numbers were humbling, and showed that 52% of students at two-year colleges had experienced some level of housing insecurity in the fall of 2020. At 43%, their peers at four-year institutions didn’t fare much better.

In response, colleges are getting creative by doing everything from establishing basic needs hubs (Portland State University) that give students access to emergency grants, and short-term housing vouchers which can be redeemed at local motels (Southwestern College).

Developing Partnerships, Devising Solutions

“The amount of social policy we focus on early childhood is just so much more than adolescence, and we don’t think about packaging programs differently for this group. So this, to me, seems like something we should be thinking about much more. Adolescents don’t like school lunch, they don’t participate in school lunch–they’re much more likely to take it up when they’re younger. So we’re just not very good at addressing food insecurity among this age group.” – Dr. Colleen Heflin, Syracuse University

Finding solutions isn’t always just a matter of money—in many cases, cultural and behavioral support is just as necessary. For high schoolers, even those who have ready access to food at school will frequently skip lunch due to long lines in the cafeteria and a desire for more social time with peers. Simply put, in their view, that half hour of freedom is too precious to be gobbled up by the “boring” activity of eating. However, for teens living in more desperate circumstances, a hot school breakfast or lunch may be their two best opportunities for fueling up in a given day–so the consequences of opting out are more dire.

In considering practical ways to tackle this particular challenge, school administrators who are willing to think outside the box may consider listening to the students themselves for ideas on how to increase participation. Among the winning solutions: delivering breakfasts directly to students during their first period classes, and installing grab & go turnstiles for lunch.

In higher education, some colleges are taking steps to bridge the gap for students who may not be eligible for state benefits like SNAP. Texas Woman’s University and MassBay Community College in Massachusetts are partnering with local food pantries to streamline student access to nutrition, and their public efforts serve a second purpose in destigmatizing food insecurity issues among college students.

Over on the west coast, The University of California has taken out the “middle man” altogether, and has been operating their own food pantries on all ten campuses in the system since 2019. A recent study showed the program made a positive difference by resulting in improved sleep among participants, as well as better mental and physical well-being.

As we partner with students to offer support as they move through the various stages of higher education, we would do well to acknowledge these institutional stories, and learn from their successes. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but innovative, student-centric partnerships can help remove more barriers from more students’ pathways.

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