I often frame my research on plant adaptation to flooding in terms of the need for food security in a changing climate. While this is a great way to start a conversation with people to help them understand why plant science and research is important, food security is more than just a goal for research, it is a societal problem that is also a pressing issue for students on US college campuses. Recent statistics indicate that more than 1 in 3 full-time college students suffer from food insecurity [1, 2]. The USDA, which is the federal agency in charge of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and other food related issues, classifies food insecurity into three classes ranging from moderate to severe based on quality and quantity of food and the effect this has on eating patterns [2].  

 What is troubling about food insecurity, particularly on campus, is that this issue is disproportionately pronounced for  students from underrepresented backgrounds. In a 2016 survey of more than 3,500 college students from across the country, First generation college students are 11% more likely to suffer from food insecurity than students who have a parent that has a college degree, and 57% of students of color report food insecurity compared to 40% of white non-Hispanic students [2]. Additionally, 22% of students responded that they had  very low food security, indicating that their eating patterns were disrupted due to inability to access food [2].


Students who are from financially underprivileged families will clearly be more vulnerable to financial insecurity, but another underrepresented group, the LGBTQ community, is also at additional risk. While working on my master’s degree, I became friends with an undergraduate student from rural North Carolina who was in the process of ‘coming out’ as gay. This student was already from a financially disadvantaged background, but once they ‘came out of the closet’ to their family they were completely cut off, not just financially, but their family also stopped talking to them, adding an additional stress to an already difficult situation. STEM students have it hard enough trying to balance classes with research, while on top of this the psychological and financial burdens just compound the stress. I could see that this resulted in students getting lower grades, further adding to problems with long-term academic achievement.

These two examples of students struggling with distracting financial and food insecurities strike me as profound and tragic. Sometimes the biggest barriers to academic achievement have nothing to do with one’s potential or desire to succeed, but are instead deficiencies in the most basic of needs, which we as more established plant scientists need to be conscious of.

Fortunately, campus food pantries geared specifically towards students are opening [3]. For example, the campus food pantry on the campus of the University of Tennessee was started several years ago and is called Smokey’s Pantry (to identify a food pantry on your campus, just google your school + “food pantry” and see what comes up!).

As a side note, federal student loans can be used to cover room and board, but the high debt load already carried by students makes it difficult to take out more money for living expenses. The long term cost makes student loans makes expensive, so students frequently try to borrow the minimal amount per semester. Additionally, loans payments come out as one large chunk at the start of the semester, so after students have received their loan for the semester, they can start to run out of money for basic expenses after a few months and won’t receive more until the start of the next semester.

What can we do? We, scientists, mentors, and teachers, are not social workers and can not do everything, but we should at least know what/where the resources are in our local communities to direct our students and those new to the area to places they can get help. We can start by identifying the contact information for the counseling services on your local campus, knowing the name of the the local food pantry, and having an idea of what the university requires and provides for students in crisis. All these things can help students focus on academics and ensure success. In the longer term, we need to ensure that there is institutional support for our students to help them survive times of crisis, as well as the day-to-day struggles of finding their next meal.

As a loftier goal, we can advocate at our home institutions for the establishment and expansion of food pantries for students. Additionally, we can work towards ensuring that SNAP is expanded in our home states to include graduate and undergraduate students;  one way to do this is by contacting your local representatives.

We can also help students by making sure we know of local resources for mental health, as well as community support (i.e., what is the name of the local counseling center? Food pantry? LGBTQ+ support group?).  What would a student need to google to find the mental health counselors office on your campus? If a student is experiencing crisis, is there at least a direction you can point them in for help?

While I will continue to focus on understanding how plants survive flooding, which I hope will one day help increase the security of the world’s food supply, I will also be sure to help and advocate for food security for those who are on my own campus that are struggling with finding their next meal.

Written by Sterling Field. I am a Ph.D. Candidate in the Biochemistry and Cellular & Molecular Biology Department at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. When I am not in the lab, I am involved with on- and off-campus community groups and help advocate for LGBTQ+ rights and representation in my community. 

[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2018/04/03/the-hidden-crisis-on-college-campuses-36-percent-of-students-dont-have-enough-to-eat/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.6a424406db2d

[2] https://studentsagainsthunger.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Hunger_On_Campus.pdf

[3] https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/11/22/colleges-open-food-banks-battle-student-hunger

Want to read more on food insecurity on campus? Check out the links below: