Abstract: Food Insecurity Among Social Work Students at One Public University: Prevalence, Disparities, and Next Steps (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

Food Insecurity Among Social Work Students at One Public University: Prevalence, Disparities, and Next Steps

Saturday, January 18, 2020
Independence BR G, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Megan Gilster, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA
Cristian Meier, PhD, Assistant Professor, Utah State University, Logan, UT
Background. Many college students struggle to meet their basic needs. While the USDA estimates that 1 in 8 Americans are food insecure (i.e., unable to meet household food needs) students are at a higher risk of food insecurity. One study found that 20% of college students were food insecure. Students of color, first-generation students, and lower-income students are at greater risk of food insecurity. To date, one published study examined the rates of food insecurity among social work students; at a Pacific Northwest school of social work, 43% of students experienced food insecurity. If social work is to diversify, addressing the needs of students experiencing and at increased risk of food insecurity is key. Furthermore, when students engage in required field education, they are less able to work to meet their basic needs. Thus, the purpose of this study is to understand food insecurity prevalence and disparities among social work students at a large, public Midwestern university with BSW, MSW, and Ph.D. programs.

Methods. This study employed a survey research design. We used convenience sampling, sampling from the population of 361 students in all learning centers and degree programs (28% BSW and 70% MSW). In spring 2019, we sent recruitment messages through the department’s listservs--132  students completed the online survey. Survey items included socioeconomic background, housing, well-being, and food security. We used the USDA’s 6-item measure of 12-month food security. We conducted descriptive and bivariate analysis in SPSS to examine food insecurity prevalence and disparities.

Results. Over 40% of respondents were food insecure. We found no significant differences by program or learning center. We found racial disparities in food insecurity (U=983.0, p=.073). There were also significant associations between parent’s educational attainment (U=1533.0, p=.035)) and homeownership and food insecurity (X2=21.5, p<.001). Food insecurity was highest among renters—63% experienced food insecurity. Students living with partners or parents were less likely to experience food insecurity than were those living alone, with roommates, and with children ( X2=32.6, p=.001). Employment status, dependent status, and pet ownership were not associated with food security.

Discussion. This study advances our understanding of the extent of food insecurity among social work students. We found a rate of food insecurity much higher than that of the US population. We found students of color and first-generation college students were much more likely to be food insecure. Findings were largely consistent with the literature on student food insecurity, especially the one previous study of social work students.

This study highlights the need for educators and students to remember that those experiencing poverty and oppression are in the classroom as well as outside the classroom. As we encourage students to practice self-care, we should be aware that material hardship is one of many structural barriers to self-care experienced by students. For some students, unpaid field placement may be a barrier to meeting basic and self-care needs. Furthermore, results suggest a need for the profession to continue to work to elevate funding for social work students and pay for social work graduates.