Abstract: It's Just a Constant Concern in the Back of My Mind: Lived Experiences of College Food Insecurity (Society for Social Work and Research 26th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Racial, Social, and Political Justice)

606P It's Just a Constant Concern in the Back of My Mind: Lived Experiences of College Food Insecurity

Sunday, January 16, 2022
Marquis BR Salon 6, ML 2 (Marriott Marquis Washington, DC)
* noted as presenting author
Youngmi Kim, PhD, Associate Professor, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA
Jennifer Murphy, MS, MSW, Doctoral Student, Virginia Commonwealth University
Kaija Craft, BA, Student, Virginia Commonwealth University
Leland Waters, PhD, Associate Director, Virginia Geriatric Education Center, Virginia Commonwealth University
Basil Gooden, PhD, Visiting Scholar, Virginia Commonwealth University
Background/Purpose: Food insecurity, defined as limited access to affordable and nutritious foods due to limited financial resources, is a growing concern in the United States. College students disproportionately experience food insecurity. Due to the unique barriers to food access during their transition to adulthood (e.g., daily living expenses, tuition), college students often experience increased vulnerability to not having adequate food resources and struggle to meet their basic needs. Further, students identifying as Black, Latino/a, or Native American are at increased risk. This study examines the lived experiences of food insecurity and associated challenges in a public urban campus.

Methods: This study is exploratory qualitative research. We recruited racially/ethnically diverse undergraduate and graduate college students at risk of food insecurity using purposive sampling during Spring 2020 (N=21). Eligibility criteria included being 18 years or older, being a student at the research team’s university, and being at risk for experiencing food insecurity, hunger, and/or limited food resources. We performed qualitative interviews through three focus groups, with approximately six to eight members in each group. Two research team members facilitated each focus group using a guide to lead the discussion. After data collection, the research team transcribed all focus groups then conducted a thematic analysis using Atlas.ti (Version 7) to explore themes that emerged from participant discussions.

Results: Three central themes emerged from our qualitative analysis: (a) barriers to accessing stable and healthy food; (b) impacts of food insecurity on academic performance and physical and mental health; and (c) coping strategies for navigating food insecurity. Barriers to accessing stable and healthy food speak to the lack of healthy food options through campus dining, dissatisfaction with campus meal plans, lack of transportation, time constraints, and limited financial resources to meet their food needs. The participants shared impacts on academic performance, commonly reporting inability to focus during class and difficulty in educational engagement. Also, the impacts on physical and mental health were largely agreed upon, for example, lack of energy, feelings of dizziness, weight loss/gain, stress, and increased anxiety/worry. They presented diverse coping strategies for navigating food insecurity: adjusting the frequency of eating or type of food and prioritizing other expenses, utilizing on-campus food pantry, meal preparation for better food options within the budget, sleeping to avoid mealtimes, or less engagement in social activities.

Discussion/Implications: The study highlights the distinct natures of food hardship specific to public urban college students. The study finds four patterns of responses and strategies exercised by college students: (1) quick adaptation in food choice and eating habits, (2) exchange over competing needs, (3) proximate resource seeking on campus, and (4) proactive development for plans and actions to establish food-supportive environments. To mitigate college food insecurity, we discuss ways to promote easier access to affordable/nutritious food options and to decrease the negative stigma surrounding the on-campus food pantry use.