An Unprecedented Look at CSU Students' Food and Housing Insecurity

Social Work Professor Jennifer Maguire (seated, second from right) works with students in HSU's Oh SNAP! food pantry.
It’s a startling and important pair of statistics: 42 percent of California State University students experienced low food security, and 11 percent reported being homeless at some point during the previous year.

These are some of the sobering takeaways from a recent study conducted by Humboldt State University Social Work Professor Jennifer Maguire and CSU Long Beach Social Work Professor Rashida Crutchfield. The Basic Needs Initiative study, commissioned by the CSU Chancellor’s Office, is the most comprehensive mixed-methods study of university students’ unmet basic needs and their relationship to student success ever completed within a four-year higher education system.

Their study gives credence to longstanding anecdotal evidence that today’s college students face significant housing and food insecurity challenges. It also shows that financial problems directly impact mental and physical health, and academic success.

The good news: The study also provides a solid basis for change, at the campus, state, and national levels. While much remains to be done, Humboldt State has been ahead of the curve in challenging student food insecurity, and housing efforts are underway. That work includes lobbying legislators in Sacramento and expanding HSU’s food program.


The Study
Several years ago, when she began to look into student basic needs, Maguire learned there were very few studies linking homelessness and food security to student outcomes in college. The subject had been explored in K-12 populations, but not in higher education.

That may be because societal expectations change when a student turns 18, she says. Federal programs like free lunches, which are effective at challenging hunger in youth in elementary and high schools, aren’t examined for college students. “I asked ‘Why,’” she says, “when good college outcomes mean positives for the whole community?”

In 2015, CSU Chancellor Timothy P. White commissioned phase one of a study where staff, faculty, and administrators were interviewed about perceptions of students facing material hardship. The findings revealed many CSU students struggle with food and housing insecurity. Following the release of those findings, the CSU launched its Basic Needs Initiative, tasked with identifying and implementing solutions, with a focus on housing and food insecurity.

This brought Maguire—who had previously surveyed HSU students on food insecurity— and Crutchfield together for the second two phases of the initiative, with the goal of better understanding what students face systemwide. Representing two very different campuses—one large and urban, another small and rural— Crutchfield and Maguire were able to show that the problem is systemic as well as highlight some of the unique challenges and possible solutions for individual universities.

The Findings
The second phase of the initiative, released earlier this year, included a survey distributed across all 23 CSU campuses, gathering 24,000 responses representative of the general student body. In addition, focus groups and interviews took place on 11 campuses with students who had reported either homelessness or food insecurity. More than 200 students shared their personal stories of unmet basic needs and how it affected their schooling.

The study found 41.6 percent of CSU students reported food insecurity in the prior 30 days. Of those, 20 percent experienced low food security, defined as “reports of reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet” with “little or no indication of reduced food intake.”

Another 21.6 percent experienced very low food security, consisting of “multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.”

At Humboldt State, nearly 46 percent of students reported low or very low food security, slightly higher than the CSU average.

Low and very low food insecurity for U.S. households overall in 2016 was 12 percent, the report notes, “making the case for college students emerging as a new food insecure population of concern, having a far higher risk of food insecurity than the general U.S. population.”

In addition, 10.9 percent of CSU students reported experiencing homelessness one or more times in the last 12 months, based on combined definitions from the Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Department of Education. The definitions include “sheltered” (in a HUD funded emergency shelter, transitional housing, and supportive housing) and “unsheltered” (on the streets, in abandoned buildings, or other places not meant for human habitation). It also includes students who lack a “fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.”

Nineteen percent of Humboldt State students reported being housing insecure at least once in the last 12 months, nearly three-quarters higher than the CSU as a whole.

The Causes
Maguire says there are many factors influencing student housing and food security on the local and state levels.

Student populations have changed, as have their responsibilities, Maguire says. The issues they face are more pronounced than many students who preceded them, and perspective on that is slowly changing as people understand that the experience of the “starving college student” is not a rite of passage but a burden and barrier to success.

“More students are first-generation college students who not only use their financial aid to go to school, but send support home,” Maguire says. “They’re older, second-career students with kids. They’re taking care of parents. They’re crushed by all of these responsibilities and they find themselves on the edge a lot quicker.”

Maguire says students are facing bigger financial difficulties than ever before. Many students receiving financial aid still need to work to afford housing and food, circumstances that make it unrealistic for students to graduate in four years.

“The big factor here is the cost of going to college is too high,” Maguire says. “Hunger, homelessness — these are the symptoms. Higher education needs to be more affordable.”

HSU students in particular face this problem. Fifty-three percent of HSU students are considered low-income, for example, compared to 32 percent at similarly sized Sonoma State University. While the cost of living locally is lower than at most CSUs, students also face a housing shortage in the community and renting is competitive.

And the problem is daunting. “Numbers on all the campuses trend similarly,” Maguire says. “More hunger and homelessness are associated with negative consequences for health and academic success, furthering the notion that this is a statewide issue.”

Phase 3 of the CSU’s Basic Needs Initiative, underway now with an expected release early in 2019, will take a close look at the programs at HSU and CSULB, examining the successes, remaining need, and lessons that can be applied to other universities in the CSU and beyond.

The Effects
As the Basic Needs study shows, student housing and food security are statewide issues. Addressing these are not just the right thing to do—it has a direct impact on student success. Evidence shows grades, retention, and graduation rates improve when students have their basic needs met.

“Findings demonstrated that there is a direct link between hungry and homeless students and mental health problems, physical health problems, lower grades, lower attendance, and less participation in recreation,” says Maguire. “It doesn’t make sense that so many students are worse off for being in college. Ideally, being a college student should be advantageous to health, success and increasing opportunities to do so. We need to continue to develop ways to support students that makes it easy to get basic needs met and be healthy, so the that their effort instead is focused on their educational goals.”

Basic needs are a civil right, Maguire believes. And while all populations of CSU students are affected by homelessness and hunger, those hardest hit are students of color, first-generation students, those from the LGBTQ communities, and former foster youth, which perpetuates inequities in health and opportunities over a lifetime.

Ensuring basic needs also furthers the mission of the CSU, which is, in part, to “prepare significant numbers of educated, responsible people to contribute to California’s schools, economy, culture, and future.”

California is facing a shortage of 1.1 million bachelor’s degree holders by 2030, according to the Public Policy Institute of California—an issue that the CSU has recognized in its Graduation Initiative 2025, which aims to keep students in school and increase their graduation rates. Removing barriers to success, like housing and food insecurity, are crucial to that effort, Maguire says.

What’s Being Done?
While much remains to be done, Humboldt State has been a leader in trying new approaches to meeting student basic needs.

Part of that is research and advocacy. Maguire and her students have done extensive research on the issues in recent years. And she has been working feverishly with other food and housing insecurity researchers across the United States to advocate for meaningful policy and support each other’s work.

In March, Maguire, HSU President Rossbacher, and others met with California legislators to call attention to the basic needs of college students and advocate for more resources to support them. They also highlighted the important work already underway at HSU and other campuses.

Among the efforts they highlighted is Oh SNAP!, which was formed with student leadership in 2013 to address food insecurity. The program features a food pantry and seasonal farm stand, offers gardening and cooking workshops, and helps about 1,000 students per year sign up for CalFresh, the state’s food assistance program.

Since October 2016, Oh SNAP! has distributed more than seven tons of food leftover from events catered by campus dining to students. In 2016, HSU became one of the first universities in the nation to accept Electronic Benefit Transfer cards for food at the College Creek Marketplace.

Early on, donations of more than $40,000 by alumni and others helped get the program going, and now a new effort will allow students to donate as well—they’ll be able to give unused dining points at the end of each semester to help feed other students. Funding from Associated Students and through grants has also been vital.

The University has also been seeking solutions to the local housing shortage, working with a student club, the HSU Homeless Student Advocate Alliance, to identify issues. A housing liaison is available to work directly with students seeking off-campus accommodations. The University also offers resources like local rental listings, a housing guide, and information about renter’s rights.

HSU has also added short-term emergency housing in residence halls, as well as emergency scholarships that would help students facing homelessness afford rental deposits and other needs. An innovative program is looking to pair students in with senior citizens and others in community home-sharing arrangements.

Community education is another key to the local housing shortage. President Rossbacher and College of the Redwoods President Keith Snow-Flamer, along with community leaders, are partnering to host a community housing summit on April 25 to build awareness and empathy, and to support existing programs and services. Equity Arcata, a group made up of university and community members to address equity and inclusion issues, is a hub for HSU and other local stakeholders to prioritize affordable housing.

The University is also looking into training faculty and staff to recognize the signs of housing and food insecurity in students and direct them to support and services. This goes in conjunction with an overall focus on student wellbeing, supported by student wellbeing ambassadors and an interactive online map to guide students toward mental and physical health and academic success. Students can also find guidance for signing up for various types of insurance, including Medi-Cal.

Funders and partners of HSU’s efforts to address food and housing insecurity include the Humboldt County CalFresh Outreach Partnership, Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services, USDA Farmers’ Market Promotion Program, HSU College of Professional Studies, HSU Student Health & Wellbeing Services, HSU Department of Social Work, HSU Health Education, HSU Associated Students, HSU Advancement, Oh Snap Fundraising Campaign, Food for People, North Coast Growers’ Association, Earthly Edibles, Community Alliance with Family Farmers, Campus Center for Appropriate Technology, and HSU Waste Reduction & Resource Awareness Program.

What’s Next?
Maguire points to several proposed state laws that could ease student food and housing insecurity. They include AB 801, which could offer priority registration and fee waivers for students who are homeless; SB 1068, providing homeless liaisons for students to receive training and education, including training on educational rights, related state and federal law, and local resources; AB 1952, which would establish a work group responsible for drafting a plan addressing universal school feeding programs that include college students; and AB 214, which clarifies existing policy regarding student eligibility and enrollment of CalFresh.

Locally, Maguire says an expansion of wellbeing ambassador program will educate the campus community about student need and existing support programs. Coupling that with expanded case management for students will also help, she says.

Despite everything, Maguire says, the students she talks with and who shared their stories display remarkable determination to pursue their education.

“These students we’ve been talking about suffer tremendous material hardship that would stop many people in their tracks,” she says. “To some extent, our call to action must paint a dark, grim story. But there’s a lot of light in the resiliency of these students.”

For more information about the Basic Needs Initiative and to read the full report, follow this link.

More information is available at HSU’s Oh SNAP! website and Living Off Campus website.