Since moving to the United States to study health informatics at IUPUI, Hema Sravanam has noticed that groceries — especially the fresh food she prefers — are far more expensive than she’s accustomed to. 

The 23-year-old master’s student is from India, where vegetables are a staple and chickens come so fresh that shoppers meet them when the birds are still alive. 

Like many college students, Sravanam is on a budget. She works 20 hours a week at her two on-campus jobs. She spends just $40 every two weeks on groceries, prioritizing meat like chicken, fresh vegetables and the only affordable fruits she can find — apples and bananas. 

“I could give up on low budget if I gave up on eating fresh food,” she said. “But, I don’t know. I don’t feel like it. It’s the only last thing that is keeping me sane right now.” 

Finding available, affordable and nourishing food is harder than ever. The cost of groceries has gone up nearly 17% in the last two years, according to federal labor data. And for college students, that squeeze is a painful one indeed.

Around 23% of undergraduates and 12% of graduate students in the U.S., amounting to more than four million students, reported low or very low food security — meaning they experience either a reduction in food or in the quality of food consumed — according to federal data compiled by Temple University. 

Combined, that number is more than double the food insecurity rate among U.S. households last year, which was just under 13%, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

Despite millions of U.S. college students not having enough to eat, experts and advocates say students are often left out of the conversation about food access. That’s because, they say, the general public has preconceived notions about what a college student looks like, i.e., an 18-year-old who can go to the dining hall to get food any time of day. 

“In this day and age when there are so many online options and folks are going to school later in life or spreading out their post high school education, it doesn’t look standard for your higher ed institution,” said Emily Weikert Bryant, executive director of the nonprofit Feeding Indiana’s Hungry.

The food pantry solution

To help students who are struggling to put meals on the table, colleges are finding ways to bring free food to students on campus.

In a spring 2023 survey from the American College Health Association, nearly half of respondents at IUPUI reported some level of food insecurity. That’s where Paws’ Pantry — the free food pantry for students, staff and faculty at IUPUI — comes in. Sravanam, for instance, picked up several meals’ worth of non-perishable food such as pasta and peanut butter. 

Andi Weidner coordinates the Paws' Pantry food pantry at IUPUI, standing in front of non-perishable staples.
Andi Weidner coordinates the Paws’ Pantry food pantry at IUPUI. Credit: Claire Rafford / Mirror Indy

Andi Weidner, pantry coordinator, said Paws’ plays a pivotal role in supplementing and supporting community members at a time when the cost of living is so high.

“We’ve had shoppers come down and say that they hadn’t eaten in two days before they figured out about the pantry,” she said. 

Now in its 10th year, Paws’ Pantry serves 360 students per week, Weidner said. Part of that is because of increased outreach on campus, but the pantry now offers more food options, too. They regularly receive about 1,600 pounds of food from Gleaners Food Bank; prior to last fall, it was fully donation-based. 

The pantry staff and volunteers address that problem on campus by being a low-barrier resource. Any student, staff or faculty member can sign up for an appointment to visit the pantry, no questions asked. 

A large portion of those who visit the pantry are in a master’s program or international students — like Unnati Mistry and Kalp Patel, who are both. 

Mistry, 25, and Patel, 32, visited the pantry for the first time on a Tuesday afternoon and picked up non-perishables such as pasta and energy bars — in addition to menstrual products. 

Mistry and Patel estimated they save about $25 to $30 by visiting the pantry, which adds up. As international students, they can’t get jobs off campus, and the pay for 10 hours of on-campus work a week is barely enough to get by.

“Oftentimes we get puree of tomato and beans, so those can be used for preparing a whole meal for three to four people,” said Mistry. 

Community colleges had a higher rate of food insecurity among the student body, at over 23%, than at four-year public and private colleges, according to Temple University’s report

At Ivy Tech Indianapolis, the Fall Creek campus’ food bank serves up to 40 families per week, said Niki Fjeldal, vice chancellor for student success. In addition to rising costs across the board, many Ivy Tech students are working to make ends meet while attending classes. Having access to food is a necessity, and IvyCares — the student assistance program — tries to make it as easy as possible. 

“They need to find that resource somewhere,” Fjeldal said. “There’s food banks in Indianapolis, but we have the benefit of being able to offer them, while they’re here for classes, to take advantage of our food bank on campus.”

Research has shown that food insecurity can negatively affect a student’s academic performance, including grades, attendance and class completion. Experts say it’s difficult to focus on writing papers and completing lab reports when basic needs aren’t being met. 

“We try and talk a lot about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs,” said Kelley Lykens, who runs the food pantry at University of Indianapolis, “And how hard it is to make sure that you’ve got shelter and safety first, before you can even focus on your classwork.”

Paws Pantry's food bank inventory
Paws’ Pantry is located in the IUPUI campus center. The pantry offers free healthy food to IUPUI students, staff and faculty struggling with food insecurity.

The broader picture

A study commissioned by the state’s Commission for Higher Education in 2021 found a “dearth” of quality data on food insecurity among college students in Indiana. But that doesn’t mean it’s not an issue — and lawmakers are taking notice. 

Rep. Earl Harris, D-East Chicago, filed a bill last legislative session that would have provided funding for college campuses to adopt a hunger-free campus program. That bill, a version of which has been adopted in 10 states, would have provided grant funding to state schools to address food insecurity on campus. The bill died in committee. 

Neither Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis — the chair of the education committee — nor House Speaker Todd Huston, R-Fishers, responded to Mirror Indy’s request for reasons why the bill did not advance. 

Harris told Mirror Indy he plans to file a similar bill to address college student hunger in the upcoming legislative session. In other states where the hunger-free campus bill was adopted, colleges have done everything from partnering with farmers markets to giving students vouchers to hiring staff who help students apply for SNAP, colloquially known as food stamps.

The money has also helped college food pantries do the work they’re already doing through renovations and additional funding. 

At Paws’ Pantry, part of that mission is to erase the stigma surrounding food pantries. Anyone can be food insecure, and if that problem’s affecting IUPUI, Weidner wants them to know the pantry is for them, too. 

All they have to do is take the first step: making an appointment. 

“Especially in today’s society, it’s expensive to buy food and to buy anything,” she said. “It’s not just for if you have children, or if you’re trying to support someone else.”

“It can just be for you as a single person, trying to survive.”

Claire Rafford covers higher education for Mirror Indy in partnership with Open Campus.Are you an Indianapolis college student, faculty or staff member? Get in touch: claire.rafford@mirrorindy.org or follow @clairerafford on Instagram/X.

Claire Rafford covers higher ed for Mirror Indy in partnership with Open Campus.