Food Insecurity and the Starving Student at CSUN

By: Jenica Smith, CSUN Dietetic Intern

Food Security

With increased tuition and enrollment, the average college student must balance the cost of higher education and the cost of living.1 As a result, access to affordable and healthy food has become a regular challenge faced by college-aged adults across the United States. The archetype of the “starving student” has become widely accepted, but at what cost? Like the body, an active mind requires enough energy to perform. Lack of adequate food may hinder a student’s ability to learn. Food insecurity has been shown to have a negative impact on academic success as well as students’ health and well-being.2,3

What is Food Insecurity?

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food insecurity as one’s inability to access adequate amounts of nutritious and affordable food at all times to maintain an active and healthy life.4

Types of Food Insecurity

Food insecurity can range from LOW to VERY LOW. With low food security, there is little to no change in food intake or eating habits, but rather, “reports of reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet”.4 An example would be eating from the fast food $1 menu everyday for one week. Very low food security is “reports of reduced food intake and eating habits due to lack of money or resources”.4 An example of this would be eating from that same $1 menu, but only being able to afford it 4 out of 7 days due to lack of funds. Nationally, an estimated 14.5% of households are considered food insecure, among which 5.7% are categorized as very low food insecure in 2013.5 This percentage may be higher now in 2019. The defining characteristic of very low food security is that, at times during the year, the food intake of household members is reduced and their normal eating patterns are disrupted because the household lacks money and other resources for food.5 There is a distinction between hunger and food insecurity. Hunger is an individual-level physiological condition that may result from food insecurity. On the other hand, food insecurity is a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.5

The Four Pillars of Food Security

The four components to food security (having sufficient access to affordable and nutrition food at all times) are availability, utilization, stability, and access:

1. Availability refers to having a reliable and consistent source of quality food. Food production can affect availability.6
2. Utilization is having the knowledge and basic sanitary conditions to choose, prepare, and distribute food in a way that results in good nutrition. Having access to clean water can affect utilization.6
3. Stability refers to the ability to access and utilize food that remains stable and sustained over time. Climate change can affect stability.6
4. Access is having sufficient resources to produce and/or purchase food. Living in a food desert, a location that has limited availability to nutritious and affordable food, can affect access.6

Study of Students’ Basic Needs of CSU Students

In 2015, California State University Chancellor Timothy White commissioned a study aimed at gaining insight into CSU campus efforts to serve students experiencing food insecurity and housing displacement, and to suggest a course of action to guarantee top academic performance and graduation.3 In 2016, phase 1 findings indicated 21% of CSU students were food insecure and 8.7% lacked a permanent residence. In 2018, phase II findings uncovered a rapid increase to 42% food insecure students and 10.9% without housing.7 

Food Aide Resources on Campus at CSUN

It can be difficult to reach students living with food insecurity for a variety of reasons including: lack of knowledge of resources on campus, confidentiality, and shame associated with the stigma of being in need. Simply being informed that food aid programs exist may encourage and motivate students to proactively use the following resources on campus:

1. CSUN Food Pantry8: Part of the Matador Involvement Center, the CSUN Food Pantry works to supply emergency subsistence and basic essentials at no cost to CSUN students who face food insecurity or scarcity. The pantry is quick, simple, confidential and open to CSUN students, staff, faculty, and administrators. Visitors to the CSUN Food Pantry are NOT expected to show proof of need. They only ask for proof of campus affiliation such as a CSUN ID.

2. CalFresh Outreach: CalFresh is a federally-funded assistance program for low-income individuals to incorporate fresh fruits and vegetables in their diets and households.8,9 Assistance is available to individuals who are U.S citizens or legal permanent residents. CSUN CalFresh Outreach helps individuals with the application process. Appointments can be made online.

3. WIC Satellite Office: Partnered with the Marilyn Magaram Center for Nutrition, Dietetics, and Food Science and the Institute of Community Health and Wellbeing and Northeast Valley Health Corporation, the California Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) is a federally-funded program that supplies support for lactation, nutrition education, vouchers for food, and referrals to other community programs. It is the only satellite center located on a CSU campus. CSUN WIC is open on Thursdays from 9am-12pm and is located on campus in Santa Susanna Hall.10,11

4. Women’s Research and Resource Center: The Women’s Research and Resource Center (WRRC) provides resources to women on campus and in the community. WRRC Food and Toiletry Pantry allows access to any student with a valid CSUN ID.12

Get Involved!

Every day, the CSU is working to find more and better ways to support their students so they can succeed. We as a community can bring about change. Host a fundraiser with your student club or department and donate acceptable canned good to the CSUN Food Pantry and toiletries to the Women’s Research & Resource Center. Join student organizations fighting to end food waste – Food Recovery Network. Participate in Nutrition Justice Internship through the Marilyn Magaram Center. CSUN can be the model for other CSU campuses. We can minimize or even eliminate the “starving student” experience at CSUN for a brighter future.


  1. Dubick J, Matthews B, Cady C. Hunger On Campus: The Challenge Of Food Insecurity For College Students.; 2016.
  2. Cady C. Food Insecurity as a Student Issue. J Coll Character. 2014;15(4). doi:10.1515/jcc-2014-0031
  3. Crutchfield R, Clark K, Gamez S, Green A, Munson D, Stribling H. Serving Displaced And Food Insecure Students In The CSU. California State University, Long Beach; 2016.
  4. U.S.D.A. Definitions Of Food Security. United States Department of Agriculture; Economic Research Service; 2018.
  5. Coleman-Jensen A, Nord M, Singh A. Household Food Security In The United States In 2012. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service; 2013.        
  6. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. An Introduction To The Basic Concepts Of Food Security. EC – FAO Food Security Programme; 2008:1-3.
  7. Crutchfield R, Maguire J. STUDY OF STUDENT BASIC NEEDS. California State University Office of the Chancellor; 2018.
  8. CSUN Food Pantry. California State University, Northridge. Published 2019. Accessed January 8, 2019.
  9. Department of Social Services. Calfresh Program. Washington D.C.: Department of Social Services; 2019.
  10. WIC – NEVHC. Published 2019. Accessed January 10, 2019.
  11. WIC Comes to CSUN. California State University, Northridge.
  12. Women’s Research and Resource Center. California State University, Northridge. Published 2019. Accessed January 10, 2019.

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