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Food Scarcity on Campus Affects Learning in the Classroom

Updated: May 10, 2023

Elizabeth Barnes, Chair of Academic Support, Daytona State College

Erin LeDuc, Director, Center for Women and Men, Daytona State College

The Reality of Food Insecurity

It’s just common sense, right? There is no use asking students to show up academically prepared for class without asking them to be cognitively prepared first. Doyle and Zakrajsek (2013) tell students: “Showing up to class without proper sleep and exercise and without nourishing or hydrating your brain will cause your brain to operate inefficiently and make learning much more difficult” (8). It doesn’t matter how meaningful and engaging the classroom experience might be, if students are hungry, they can't concentrate; they can’t learn.

For decades, the “Freshman 15” has defined the stereotypical freshman experience, so instructors might be forgiven for assuming that their students are showing up to class well-fed, well-rested, and ready to learn. However, this basic assumption has been disproven with the release of the Wisconsin HOPE Lab’s newest report (April 2018), “Still Hungry and Homeless in College.”

According to the report: “Thirty-six percent of students at 66 surveyed colleges and universities do not get enough to eat, and a similar number lack a secure place to live” (3). The report’s Food Insecurity graphic (See Figure 1) gives some insight into the way the HOPE Lab defines food insecurity, which is especially important to consider since students don’t typically define themselves as food insecure, and if students don’t see themselves this way, instructors might not either. The same is true of housing insecurity, an issue that research has closely tied to food insecurity. The HOPE Lab report’s Housing Insecurity graphic gives additional insight into the way that this experience is defined (See Figure 2).

Changing Demographics Presents New Student Needs

Nationwide, post-secondary institutions have done an incredible job changing the demographic of the typical college student, who is now older, from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds, and both culturally and racially diverse. However, this increase in diversity comes with a particular set of pressures to which institutions must respond. According to research by McNair et al. (2016):

“The challenge for us today is that our system of higher education has grown exponentially over the last three centuries—and growth continues. As it grows, so do the numbers of students who need additional support and preparation” (11).

This national awareness mirrors our local story at Daytona State College in Daytona Beach, Florida. As part the Wisconsin HOPE Lab and the Kresge Foundation’s 2015 survey project, Daytona State College submitted student responses to questions about food and housing insecurity. The results on our campus were staggering: 68% of our students reported food insecurities and 16% of students reported having spent at least one night wondering where they would sleep.

Developing Programs to Support Students

For Daytona State, this data became a call to action. Members of the college community stepped up to provide resources to students and to educate faculty and staff, and because of a pre-existing community-oriented mindset, Daytona State was able to leverage existing services into an infrastructure designed to support the whole student. The College’s Center for Women and Men, took on the job of organizing these additional efforts. The Center supports the College’s Fresh Start Program (a four-week program designed to help students learn about potential educational pathways), a CCAMPIS [Child Care Access Means Parents In School] federal grant program subsidizing child care, and the New Directions Scholarship (designed to assist Pell-eligible vocational students). The Center for Women and Men had the organization and the imagination to support the needs the HOPE project survey revealed about our student population. In order to successfully design and implement support programs for students, McNair et al. (2016) express the importance of creating an institutional “ecosystem,” a paradigm that hinges on effective collaboration both within the institution and the broader community:

“We recommend that student-ready institutions first seek to identify their students’ holistic needs, compare those needs to the type and number of available on-campus resources, and bolster (where needed) their institutional capacity to serve those needs by pursuing partnerships with community-based organizations, workface boards, government agencies, faith-based organizations, and others” (101).

At Daytona State, we are steeped in a culture of community support, so once the problem was identified, the leap to providing food directly to students was easy.

In August 2016, Daytona State College opened a food pantry, Falcon Fuel, tailored to the student experience, a place where students could drop by and get a healthy snack. No questions asked. The pantry began with donations from staff, faculty, and local agencies. Word began to spread and students began coming in for free snacks. When the supplies began to run out, the Center for Women and Men appealed to the college community for help with a reliable source of funding. The College’s Student Government Association came to the rescue by unanimously voting to give the Center for Women and Men $10,000 annually from student support fees.

Another intended consequence of housing Falcon Fuel items in the Center for Women and Men is obvious. Like most free snacks, it got students in the door. Students suffering from homelessness and hunger began talking to us and asking for more help. Based on feedback from students who stopped by for a snack from the food pantry, the Center for Women and Men continued to expand services:

  • Falcon Fuel food pantry and bag lunch program for the homeless and/or food insecure

  • Free healthcare for students and their families provided by community partners

  • Transportation donated by VOTRAN [Volusia County Public Transit System]

  • Mentorship program facilitated by experienced faculty and staff

  • Referrals to and resources for housing and human services

  • Laundry vouchers

  • Backpacks full of school supplies

  • Free on-campus printing

  • Free haircare provided by the College’s Cosmetology & Barbering programs

Through our College’s humble Falcon Fuel program, we realized that our students’ food insecurity problem was part of a much more complex crisis. Again and again, through a well-organized and thoughtful series of steps, the College brought together the college community, non-profit organizations, and area businesses to address hunger and homelessness among our student body and our community. Institutions at large and faculty alone cannot evolve to successfully engage with our student population without working together. It is important that faculty consider the following from the Wisconsin HOPE Lab (April 2018):

“The data show that basic needs insecurities disproportionately affect marginalized students and are associated with long work hours and higher risk of unemployment. However, the level of academic effort—in and outside the classroom—is the same regardless of whether or not students are dealing with food and housing insecurity. It is therefore critically important to match their commitments with supports to ensure degree completion” (3).

When institutional partners work together, resulting programs and policies can provide the foundation for a successful classroom experience.

Ambrose et al. (2010) suggest that we must examine our assumptions about the preconditions for student learning: “As instructors, we have a great deal of control over the climate we shape, and can leverage climate in service of learning once we understand how and why it influences student learning. Because of the connections between classroom climate and student development, many of the strategies that help foster a productive climate also encourage student development” (180). The context for pedagogical decisions must include the possibility that our students might not have fulfilled some basic needs before they’ve stepped into our classrooms. And as faculty, we must become part of an effective institutional and community-wide ecosystem designed to bolster student success by doing what we can to make sure our students’ bodies are rested and fed.

Discussion Questions

  1. Use the following questions from Bryk, Gomez and Grunow’s (2010) work on networked improvement communities to begin a conversation at your institution about food scarcity: What are we trying to solve? Whose expertise is needed? How do we organize to achieve the outcome? (4).

  2. How would you describe your institution’s ecosystem? What community partners might you work with? How can you position yourself, as an instructor, and your college, on an institutional level, as mechanisms of support for students?

  3. How might you revise your syllabus and other course documents to address the stigma of asking for help in the classroom?


Ambrose, S. A, Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett. M. C., Norman, M. K., (2010). How learning works: 7 research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Brown McNair, T., Albertine, S., Asha Cooper, M., McDonald, N., Major Jr., T. Becoming a Student-Ready College: A New Culture of leadership for student success. (2016). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Bryk, A. S., Gomez, L. M. and Grunow, A. (2010). Getting ideas into action: Building networked improvement communities in education. Stanford, CA: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Retrieved from

Doyle, T. and Zakrajsek, T. (2013). The new science of learning: How to learn in harmony with your brain. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Goldrick-Rab, S., Richardson, J., Schneider, J., Hernandez, A., and Cady, C. (April 2018). Still hungry and homeless in college. Wisconsin HOPE Lab. Retrieved from:

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