An Introduction to Food Insecurity on College Campuses Part Two: Innovative Initiatives on College Campuses Addressing Food Insecurity

This is the second in a three-part series detailing the issues and potential solutions related to food security on college campuses. Read Food Insecurity on College Campuses and Reexamining SNAP Policies for College Students for more insight into this subject.

Impacts of COVID-19 on College Food Insecurity 

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a negative impact on the food security of many communities, including college students. COVID disproportionately affected people who were already food insecure and pushed many more into new food crises. As the pandemic closed university dormitories and campus dining facilities, many college students lost access to the sources of food that they relied on, resulting in higher reported rates of food insecurity, greater stress, and poorer health status.

Addressing Student Food Insecurity

There are many innovative programs and initiatives underway on college campuses that address food insecurity among students. Some have established formal initiatives to help reduce food insecurity by centralizing programs. 

One example, Rams Against Hunger at Colorado State University, was set up through the Office of Student Leadership, Involvement and Community Engagement as a formalized strategy to combat food insecurity on campus. Examples of programs offered through this initiative include on-campus food pantries, food recovery programs, assistance with federal aid applications, and meal swipe programs. Formalizing these services within one central group allows food security to be addressed more comprehensively across campus, and allows students to browse all of the various services the campus offers to find out which programs works best for them.

Below, we share other examples of innovative programs on college campuses that are addressing food insecurity.

Food pantries—both on-campus and mobile

Offering on-campus and mobile food pantries provide a popular way that college campuses are improving food access for students in need. On-campus food pantries, often run through the student government or administrative department, are located on campus and allow students to access a variety of non-perishable and perishable food. In the last decade, over 350 on-campus food pantries have been established. Mobile food pantries are another way to connect students with food options without having an on-campus option, and instead, use trucks to deliver food in a temporary distribution zone on campus at a specified time. For example, Metropolitan State University in Denver has partnered with the Food Bank of the Rockies to host a mobile food pantry on campus twice a month, and all students are able to participate. 


These programs encourage food secure students to donate any extra dining hall meal swipes and dollars. Donated meal swipes and dollars can then be distributed to students in need. For example, the Swipes for Us program at UC Santa Barbara allows students to donate up to three meal swipes per week by filling out an online google form. The meal swipe program at UC Santa Barbara has reported over 6,000 meal donations from residents since its establishment in winter 2013.

Food Recovery

Some campuses allow students to take away leftover food from catering events. For example, the Ram Food Recovery Program, as part of the Rams Against Hunger initiative described above, allows students to sign up to receive alerts when leftover food is available using either a mobile app or texting service. Students can then come to pick up the extra food at specified hours of retrieval. Food recovery systems like these also combat food waste in addition to food insecurity. 

Accepting Federal Benefits

Though participation in federal nutrition benefit acceptance directly on college campuses can be somewhat challenging to establish, several institutions have had success navigating the regulatory requirements. Oregon State University and Humboldt State University are among these institutions which now allow federal nutrition benefits like SNAP and WIC to be directly accepted at grocery stores on-campus. Various requirements, such as ensuring a required variety of food in campus convenience stores as well as updating the university payment systems to be able to accept SNAP were required to be updated before eligibility was established. 

In-person Assistance for Navigating Federal Aid Eligibility

In an effort to connect students with federal aid services, some campuses offer in-person assistance on campus to help navigate the SNAP benefits process. For example, California State University hosts campus outreach programs, both in-person and on social media, to raise awareness for SNAP eligibility and to offer application assistance for students to help sign them up for federal aid benefits.

Rides From Campus

Some campuses partner with free, safe ride services offered to the student body to support students by directly delivering meal boxes, or by helping students get to physical food bank locations that are off-campus. For example, RamRide Food Operations through Colorado State University, helps to deliver free meal boxes from the mobile food pantries to students on- or off- campus who are not able to attend the mobile food pantry in-person.

Emergency Grant Aid

Some institutions offer emergency grants for students to assist with cost of living and prevent early drop-out, allowing additional budget for food. For example, the City College of New York has an emergency grant program that students can apply for when meeting certain eligibility criteria in a financial emergency.

While these programs are good examples of ways that institutions are addressing food insecurity on campuses, it is important to note that many of these programs help address food insecurity in the short term, and often provide a “band-aid approach” to more deeply rooted problems of food insecurity. Many interrelated factors play a role in producing food insecurity on college campuses, including the rising cost of student tuition, high levels of student debt, socioeconomic factors, and the changing demographic of college students. To address food insecurity in a comprehensive manner, we must work to understand and address the root causes of college student food insecurity.

Written by:

Robyn Garratt, MPH Candidate. Robyn served an internship with Community Commons and currently lives in Virginia.

Last Updated 2023

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More in This Series

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