The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

Prevalence and Predictors of Social Work Student Food Insufficiency

Saturday, January 18, 2014: 11:00 AM
Marriott Riverwalk, Alamo Ballroom Salon E, 2nd Floor Elevator Level BR (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Bowen McBeath, PhD, Associate Professor, Portland State University, Portland, OR
Rhenne Miles, MSW, Doctoral Research Assistant, Portland State University, Portland, OR
Paul Sorenson, MSW, Doctoral Research Assistant, Portland State University, Portland, OR
Cimone Schwoeffermann, MSW, Student Recruitment and Retention Specialist, Portland State University, Portland, OR
Janet Putnam, MSW, Director of Student Affairs and Assistant Professor, Portland State University, Portland, OR
Background and Purpose:

This paper reports findings from the first study of food insufficiency among enrolled social work students.  Despite concerns that students in higher educational institutions are increasingly experiencing food insufficiency (Chapparo et al., 2009; Hughes et al, 2011; Magoc, 2012), no study has calculated the prevalence of food insufficiency among social work students.  This paper is organized in response to two research questions: (1) What is the prevalence of food insufficiency among social work students?; and (2) What individual and programmatic factors are associated with the likelihood of experiencing food insufficiency?


These questions were examined through analyses of data from an online survey of undergraduate and graduate students at a Pacific Northwest school of social work.  Survey questions concerned food insecurity and hunger, food-related coping strategies, and effects on student learning, health, and well-being. Over April 1-15 2013, 496 of 897 currently-enrolled students participated in the survey (equivalent to a school-wide response rate of 55%).  The dichotomous outcome variable of food insufficiency was developed using the standard USDA formula: “food insufficient” individuals were operationalized as those who self-reported having experienced in the past 12 months 3 or more of 18 food insufficient conditions (Coleman-Jensen, Nord, Andrews, & Carlson, 2012).  Multivariate logistic regression models were used to examine the relationship between the odds of being food insecure and a set of hypothesized individual factors (e.g., race/ethnicity, having a parent with an undergraduate degree) and programmatic factors (e.g., program membership, credit load, full- or part-time status) (Barrett, 2010). 


Descriptively, the prevalence of food insecurity among social work students was 43% (211 of 496 students).  Over three-quarters of food insufficient students noted that, in the past year, they regularly: worried whether their food would run out before they could purchase more; could not afford to eat balanced meals; and cut the size of meals or skipped meals because they did not have enough food.  Multivariate analyses determined that the odds of being food insecure was significantly (p<0.05) and positively associated with being Hispanic (OR=1.94), being in the BSW program (as opposed to the campus-based MSW program, OR=2.43), and being in the distance/off-campus MSW program (as opposed to the campus-based MSW program, OR=1.77).  In contrast, the odds of food insecurity was reduced for students with at least one parent with an undergraduate degree (OR=0.67, p<0.05). 

Conclusion and Implications:

These findings highlight the importance of assessing and attending to the material needs of social work students and, in particular, of developing non-stigmatizing policies and programs to reduce students’ socioeconomic burdens (e.g., tuition reductions, loan forgiveness).  Given the paucity of research on these topics, additional study is needed on the causes, correlates, and consequences of student food insufficiency as well as related impacts of community- and university-based safety net programming (e.g., university-based food pantries).  These research and policy/practice implications reflect a theoretical orientation in which student and post-graduate outcomes are posited to be a function of the provision of basic (i.e., food) supports and other social-educational resources (Campbell, 1991).