The Struggle to Afford Food in College Towns — and What Colleges Are Doing About It

by Elizabeth Sherwood April 25, 2018

Rising tuitions have forced many students to reassess the true value of a college degree and get more creative in funding the high cost of higher education. But what happens when these larger costs make it difficult to afford the essentials—like meals and housing?

A 2018 study from the Wisconsin Hope Lab found that 42 percent of community college students consider themselves to be low or very low in food security.  (Food insecurity is a state in which “consistent access to adequate food is limited by a lack of money and other resources at times during the year,” according to the USDA.)

At universities, the number who have low or very low food security decreases to 36 percent, likely due in part to enrollment in campus meal plans. Of university respondents, 40 percent said that they were unable to afford balanced meals, while 25 percent reported skipping meals altogether because they did not have enough money for food. The study also found that students who work at least 20 hours per week, and those unemployed but looking for work, experienced higher rates of food insecurity.

The students’ struggles with food security are also apparent in the American Communities Project’s College Town counties, according to an ACP analysis of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s 2018 County Health Rankings. The average Food Environment Index for College Towns is 7.3—just above the national average of 7. Yet, in those rankings, about 15% of those who live in the average College Town county experience “food insecurity.”

That number was more inline with lower-income and less-educated community types, such as Working Class Country (15%) and the Evangelical Hubs (16%) than it was with the best educated county types, such as the Urban Suburbs (12%) and the Exurbs (11%).

The insight poses a tough question: If a college education is a ticket to a better life and College Towns have greater access to food than the rest of the country, why is food insecurity such a big problem on college campuses? The disparity between the cupboards of college students and their neighbors may be directly tied to the impact of insurmountable student debt on everyday life.

A Personal Perspective

As a graduate student at George Washington University (GW), I have seen multiple classmates battle food insecurity. Living in Washington, D.C. is expensive, but add tens of thousands of dollars in tuition and hefty commuter costs and it can be a tough place to survive as a full-time student. The only grocery store in the campus area is Whole Foods, well outside the budget range of most students. For those living on the south end of campus, the next closest major grocery store, Trader Joe’s, is nearly a mile away.

My classmates have shared countless stories of how they manage to afford food. One friend said she and her roommates coordinate grocery purchases to meet the minimum for free delivery from Safeway, sometimes waiting a month to place a large enough order. Joy Durkin, a first-year graduate student, often purchases non-perishable items online from Walmart because the company ships for free when you spend more than  $30. However, because fresh food is difficult to order online she often uses free university shuttle services to shop at lower-cost grocery stores, relying on the kindness of drivers.

Campus Solutions

My classmates are similar to many students around the U.S. who have trouble getting affordable, healthy food. Colleges and universities have responded by starting programs to help meet this need.

Inside the Store at GW

GW established its store in September 2016. The campus pantry is the brainchild of Tim Miller, associate dean of students in the Center for Student Engagement, who was moved to action by stories of first generation students skipping meals because they could not afford food, according to Store Vice President Hannah Grosvenor, a junior at GW. One student noted that he would only schedule classes after noon so he could sleep in, avoiding hunger and only needing to purchase a single meal each day.

The Store goes unnoticed by students who aren’t looking for it. Tucked behind a stairwell in the basement dining area, the pantry requires registered students to scan their student ID to gain access. The inconspicuous door opens to reveal several shelves stacked high with grains, canned goods, nutrition bars, and school supplies. Depending on the day, freezers and refrigerators are stocked with frozen meats and fresh produce from nearby partners. A schedule near the door notes what days shoppers can expect to find leftover Panera pastries or milk and eggs from Whole Foods.

Students can roam stacks of canned goods and non-perishable items independently, taking items from the shelves as needed.

The Store now serves more than 700 students, and a culture of trust permeates the space. Students shop anonymously, only giving their student number to be given “tap access” to the facility. They take a short survey at the end to record what they removed  so the staff know what items to replenish. The entire experience is unsupervised so students can take advantage of the service without fear of stigma.

Students can also pick up school supplies and professional attire to prepare for class and interviews in the city.

Currently, the Store is chartered as a student organization through the university. However, this poses problems working with the Capital Area Food Bank (CAFB)—the largest supplier of food for the pantry (about 2,000 pounds every two weeks). The regional food bank typically sells the Store food at a highly subsidized cost, around 99 cents a pound. Unfortunately, discrepancies in tax laws have recently rendered the Store ineligible to receive this service from CAFB. The rules require regional food bank agencies to be nonprofits aiding the needy, ill, or children. Since GW does not serve any of these populations, the Store is working to establish 501(c)(3) status to continue partnership with CAFB.

MSU Food Bank’s Inner Workings

Michigan State University, the first campus to offer a student food pantry, opened the MSU Food Bank in 1993. The pantry feeds nearly 7,000 students annually, supplying more than 100,000 pounds of food. Because of high demand, the MSU Food Bank does not permit open shopping. Instead, shoppers fill out a form requesting a number of items in specific categories and a volunteer stocks a box with dry goods, depending on household size. At the same time, the shopper can pick up fresh produce supplied by pantry partners. For efficient service, distribution is limited to specific dates each month. Those who cannot make it to distribution days can make appointments online to pick up groceries the day before.

Funding and supplies for the MSU Food Bank come from several sources. The founders registered the organization as a 501(c)(3) when they first began, paving a smooth path for partnership with the local regional bank. Since the food bank is separate entity from the school, it also has greater autonomy of funds. According to the food bank director, Nicole Edmonds, the pantry still operates as a student organization despite its independent status. The organization also receives university funds to staff her position along with 10 to 15 other part-time roles.

Next Steps for Universities

The student pantries at MSU and GW have received national recognition recently, generating interest in establishing similar resources at other schools. In response, the MSU Food Bank cofounded the College and University Food Bank Alliance—a collective of more than 600 universities seeking to begin or improve food security programming for students. The Store is a member of the alliance.

Although the MSU Food Bank’s scope is much larger than GW’s Store, both cite similar trends in mission and use. Leaders from both pantries confirmed that the majority of shoppers are graduate students. With no meal plan access and potential for compounded student debt from undergraduate institutions, it is not surprising that food insecurity more deeply affects them.

Additionally, both schools are working to reduce the stigma of food insecurity. The Store does this by ensuring that students remain anonymous and allowing them to use the store independently.

The MSU Food Bank is conducting research to help students recognize food insecurity and feel comfortable using the pantry. The idea that college students are “supposed to be poor” has permeated university culture, causing students to identify their own hunger as a mere factor of the higher education experience rather than a significant barrier to basic needs.

Vol. 1 October 2018

Health and Place in America

The American Communities Project releases its first report supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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How New Tax Law May Deepen America’s Political and Geographic Divides

by Dante Chinni April 17, 2018

This federal tax season marks the last one with a full dose of SALT – state and local taxes. Next year the new Republican tax plan will place a $10,000 cap on the deduction households can take on their property and state and local incomes taxes, and those changes will fall hardest on the most urban places.

Data from the Tax Foundation analyzed by the American Communities Project finds it is the Big City and Urban Suburb communities that pay the most in SALT taxes, followed by the Exurbs. All those types have an average median SALT amount of more than $3,000, meaning many people in those communities are most likely to feel the impacts of the new law, according to 2014 data from the foundation.

Sitting on the other end of the spectrum in the ACP: the Native American Lands, Aging Farmlands and Hispanic Centers. All have an average median SALT amount of less than $1,000.

ACP Type Average Median SALT
Urban Suburbs $4,931.47
Big Cities $4,042.68
Exurbs $3,048.10
Middle Suburbs $2,411.01
College Towns $2,403.72
LDS Enclaves $1,724.85
Rural Middle America $1,618.95
Military Posts $1,567.61
Graying America $1,452.73
African American South $1,089.79
Working Class Country $1,069.95
Evangelical Hubs $1,005.99
Hispanic Centers $891.69
Aging Farmlands $765.36
Native American Lands $424.39

Much has been made of the political impacts of these numbers, how Democratic leaning communities look as though they will be hit hardest in this part of the new law. And the numbers bear that out.

In the 2014 data, there were 13 counties where the median SALT amount was over $10,000 and 11 of those counties voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. That means that more than half the households in those communities will take a hit under the new tax law. (Nine of those counties are Urban Suburbs in the ACP, three are Big Cities and one is an Exurb.)

But that broad view of the data may miss a larger point. Because of the way it targets state and local taxes, the new tax law is more than a purely partisan measure. In many ways it may deepen the urban/rural divide that has become a defining part of the American political story, making urban areas lean more Democratic.

Places with higher SALT amounts tend to be more urban because urban property values are typically higher which means urban property taxes tend to be higher, regardless of a homeowner’s political affiliation.

All those counties, even the ones that voted for Clinton in 2016, have some Republican voters in them. Many of them will pay more under the new rules as well, which may make them less likely to vote Republican in future elections regardless of political affiliation. It certainly makes them less likely to support this plan and the Republican Congress members who passed it.

And while it’s true that the SALT deductions tend to be biggest in the coastal states – such as California, New York and New Jersey – at the county level the impacts creep inward to swing states.

The 50 counties with the highest median SALT amounts include six counties in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Minnesota, three of which voted for President Donald Trump in 2016.

State County SALT Amount ACP Type 2016 winner
MN Carver $7,643.82 Exurb Trump
WI Ozaukee $7,564.69 Exurb Trump
PA Chester $6,666.00 Exurb Clinton
PA Montgomery $6,399.52 Urban Suburb Clinton
MN Hennepin $6,302.26 Big City Clinton
WI Waukesha $6,196.59 Exurb Trump


That’s not a lot of places, but if the 2020 presidential election is as close as the 2016 race was, those numbers could matter, possibly quite a bit. And in some of these areas, all around major urban centers, there may be angry, disheartened Republicans who either stay home or voice their objection at the ballot box in November.

To be clear, the SALT issue is not over. Three states have filed suit against the federal government arguing that the new law “preempts the states’ ability to govern by reducing the ability to provide for their own citizens” and unfairly targets some states because of their higher state tax rates.

But in its current form the SALT provisions of the new tax law only seem likely to harden the community voting patterns the ACP has been noting for some time.

The Big Cities and Urban Suburbs, which have long been solidly Democratic, will have more reason to lean that way. And the Republican-heavy Exurbs, which have been somewhat skeptical of the Trump-led GOP, will have more reason to doubt the party.

Vol. 1 October 2018

Health and Place in America

The American Communities Project releases its first report supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Learn More

Concerns About Online Privacy Are Top of Mind Across America

by Ari Pinkus April 09, 2018

As data breaches roil the tech landscape and moves to boycott Facebook, Apple, and Google increase, Americans across the country see the lack of privacy online significantly impacting them and those they know. It appears to be a great common denominator in the country’s cultural experience today, unlike many other aspects of life as chronicled by the American Communities Project.

Online usage tracks similarly among the 15 community types. According to Simmons Consumer Research data from July to December 2017, 45 percent of Americans on average went online at home more than 25 times in a given week. (Hispanic Centers were the notable exception with 38 percent logging on that much.) About 17 percent spent one to four hours online at home (but not on email) and 15 percent spent five to nine hours online in their homes in a typical week.

Despite such consumption, just 31 percent of people felt they have “a fair amount of control over information about them online.” This deviates by just a percentage point or two across the 15 community types in the American Communities Project. Aging Farmlands is on the lower end at 27 percent, perhaps because fewer people are online in these places.

In bleaker news, 15 percent of people across community types said they had a negative experience with online info about them while 38 percent said they know people who have had a negative experience. The outlier in this data is LDS Enclaves, made up of large numbers of people of Mormon faith. Here 46 percent say they know people who have had a negative experience with their personal info online. The close-knit nature of these communities may help them spread the word faster; their underrepresented religion could make them a target online.

Generally, people feel helpless when these situations happen. Across community types, 42 percent of people agreed that once their personal info is online, there’s nothing they can do about it. The percentages in individual regions range from 40 to 44 percent.

Risk Awareness

To be sure, the latest headlines show that Americans are not fully informed about what’s happening to their personal information online. Simmons found that 55 percent of people believe they understand the risks of providing information online. Drilling down, this number ranges from 57 percent in the Exurbs, home to a high percentage of wealthy and educated residents, to 52 percent in Hispanic Centers, whose demographics are 56 percent Hispanic and 30 percent under 18.

However, just 27 percent said they often read companies’ privacy statements. In most kinds of communities, the figure ranges between 24 and 28 percent. In the African American South, the number hits 30 percent. Perhaps then it’s not surprising that many people weren’t aware Facebook Messenger was scraping their personal information and upset to recently learn that it was happening. In a bit of irony, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg responded that people who signed up for the company’s app accepted all the terms in its user agreement.

Government Not Trusted

As Congress grills Zuckerberg this week about Cambridge Analytica’s data harvesting of up to 87 million users, it’s worth pointing out that people’s confidence that government can handle the problem is not high. Just 31 percent of people said they trusted the federal government to protect their privacy online, according to the Simmons survey. Aging Farmlands had the least trust at 27 percent. (In the U.S., Facebook has a total audience of 214 million users.)

At the same time, the big tech companies have become a force in Washington, pushing an agenda that includes less regulation. Google’s parent company spent more than $18 million on lobbying in DC last year—more than any other company in 2017. In the same period, Facebook spent more than $11 million on lobbying efforts, Amazon more than $12 million, and Apple more than $7 million, according to

With all the data breaches and the government’s laissez faire policies thus far, it seems some people have chosen to take matters into their own hands. Twenty-five percent of people across community types said they are using the internet less because of privacy concerns.

Vol. 1 October 2018

Health and Place in America

The American Communities Project releases its first report supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Learn More

Across Communities, a Link Between Encouraging Relationships and Healthy Choices

by Elizabeth Sherwood April 02, 2018

Healthy eating and regular exercise are considered key in maintaining a healthy lifestyle. To that end, companies must prominently list ingredients and nutrition facts, employers subsidize gym costs, and mobile apps help track movement and eating habits.

These are all great forms of encouragement to make healthy choices, but what happens when people don’t surround themselves with others who encourage them to follow through? Recent data show the responses vary across the different types of counties in the American Communities Project.

The Wellbeing Index from Gallup and Sharecare indicates that communities in which individuals have someone in their life encouraging them to make healthy choices achieve average levels of health-conscious follow through. These communities are nearly even when it comes to eating healthy, exercising for 30 minutes at least three days a week, and getting five servings of fruits and vegetables at least four days a week.

At the same time, when people don’t have someone who encourages them, they are less likely to make healthy decisions for themselves — which shows up in communities across America.

Evangelical Hubs and African American South Make Least Healthy Choices

Across the 15 community types, people in Evangelical Hubs and the African American South consistently report having the least healthy lifestyles. In the African American South (on the map below in green), 44 percent identify as non-healthy eaters with the average of all community types being 38.4 percent. In Evangelical Hubs, the figure ticks up to 41.7 percent.

When it comes to diet composition, the Evangelical Hubs (in purple below) are among the lowest in consumption of fruits and vegetables, with only 53.3 percent getting five servings per day at least four days out of the week. The African American South has marginally higher fruit and vegetable consumption at, 55.4 percent. Across types, the average sits at 56.1 percent.

Both community types encompass a large swath of the South, well known for fatty foods and soul food cooking so these numbers may not be surprising.

Another factor to take into account: the availability of healthier options in the regions. The County Health Rankings’ Food Environment Index is a good indicator of access to grocery stores, average income, and food insecurity. (The index is a one to 10 scale, with 10 being the highest.) While the national average is seven, many counties in the African American South and Evangelical Hubs score below five. In Mississippi, mostly made up  of African American South communities, the average is 3.6. The lack of access to quality, healthy foods certainly affects people’s ability to eat healthy.

Without accountability, exercise rates drop off. For example, nearly half of the population in the African American South say they exercise for more than 30 minutes a maximum of two days per week. A 2012 focus group study from the National Institutes of Health found that African American men were more likely to participate in physical activity when a peer encouraged them.  The opposite is true, too: they may be more sedentary when their peers lack the motivation to work out.

With Age Comes Wisdom

One group, Graying America, (in dark blue below) encounters moderate encouragement but still manages to be some of the country’s healthiest eaters. In this community, where nearly a quarter of residents are over 62, accountability is below average. Even though support is wavering, 64.2 percent say they are  healthy eaters, and 59.9 percent eat five servings of fruits and vegetables at least four days per week — both statistics put Graying America in the top three community types for healthy living.

It’s worth noting that Graying America is home to large numbers of retirees.  They might be widows, widowers, or empty nesters who don’t have the same support system as people in other communities. This group also reports some of the most health problems, indicating that healthy diets could be doctors’ orders. If the only encouragement to be healthy comes from doctors and phone calls from their children, individuals in Graying America likely  have a strong internal will developed over their many years of life.

Vol. 1 October 2018

Health and Place in America

The American Communities Project releases its first report supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Learn More