Close Mobile Menu

Hunger at UC Berkeley: A Sizeable Share of Students are Financially Forced to Skip Meals

May 10, 2016
by Katia Savchuk
Grocery store

UC Berkeley sophomore Anthony Carrasco loves his Monday afternoon class lecture on the History of Punishment, but sometimes the torture feels a little too literal.

“Instead of thinking about the Panopticon, I start thinking about heating up the stove and frying eggs. I start to imagine all the things I could put on the eggs: cheese, hot sauce, salt, pepper,” he says. “It’s very difficult to process everything that’s going on and deal with just being really hungry.”

Carrasco, who is double majoring in political science and legal studies, says he regularly skips a few meals a week in the face of hunger—because he can’t afford them. A first-generation college student, he receives no financial help from his parents, a baker and retired construction worker with six children. The University of California system’s Blue and Gold Opportunity Plan, which supports in-state students with a family income of less than $80,000, covers his tuition, fees and health insurance, plus about half of his rent. He has also taken out $8,000 in student loans and spends 10 hours a week tutoring English at a community center for $13 an hour.

Still, Carrasco struggles to make ends meet due to the Bay Area’s escalating cost of living. “It’s still a hustle and a struggle every month to make rent and afford living expenses,” he says. “When it’s time to be frugal or be especially careful, the thing that gets cut is food.”

“We are faced with challenges that have never been at the level they are today.”

Carrasco is among a sizable share of students at Berkeley, and across the UC system, who are going without meals or nutritious food because of financial concerns. Although no Berkeley-specific data exists, 26 percent of undergraduates across nine UC campuses reported at least somewhat often skipping meals to save money, according to the most recent UC Undergraduate Experience Survey from 2014. That figure was up from 22 percent in 2010, the first time the survey included the question.

Man in grocery store

The issue goes beyond missing a meal while cramming for exams, or stocking up on ramen, according to Ruben Canedo, a research and mobilization coordinator at UC Berkeley’s Centers for Educational Equity who leads the campus’s Food Security Committee. He also works on the issue at the UC level, co-chairing the Food Access and Security Committee for the system-wide Global Food Initiative. “Because the cost of living is increasing and the cost of a university education is increasing, students are facing basic needs security challenges at higher levels and in ways we haven’t expected.”

Tuition and fees for in-state undergraduates at UC Berkeley have increased nearly 60 percent since 2008, primarily due to cutbacks in state funding following the recession. Across the UC system, the portion of undergraduates with high financial need (as measured by those eligible for federal Pell Grants) increased from 31 percent in 2008 to 41 percent in 2014, partly because of declines in family income after the economic downturn. Last year, half of the system’s incoming freshmen were the first in their families to earn a college degree.

“Even full financial aid packages are falling short because housing is so expensive, or there are health circumstances, or books are so expensive, or students have to spend money on transportation,” Canedo says. “We are faced with challenges that have never been at the level they are today.”

The issue is particularly acute for students in Berkeley, where housing costs are 215 percent higher than the national average and median rents grew more than 43 percent between 2011 and 2015. The Financial Aid office estimates that UC Berkeley undergraduates who live off-campus will spend more than $7,500 on housing and utilities and more than $2,600 on food in the next nine-month academic year.

“Meat has left my budget—I just can’t afford it. If I really need to save money, unfortunately spending on food is the first to go.”

Carrasco, for example, pays $750 a month out-of-pocket for his room in a shared apartment in Albany, even after his grant. To avoid pricey food options around campus, he often takes an AC Transit bus to Richmond to shop for discount groceries at Smart & Final or FoodMaxx. Usually, his basket contains only soy milk, bread and eggs, plus occasionally cheese, butter or tortilla chips. He also subscribes to Imperfect Produce, a service that delivers small boxes of deformed fruits or vegetables for $11 to $13.

“Meat has left my budget—I just can’t afford it,” he says.

“If I really need to save money, unfortunately spending on food is the first to go. One of the only circumstances I can control is how much I eat.”

Carrasco tries to cook at home, though there’s not always time for that given his course schedule. He notices that he has started overeating when he encounters free food at campus events. “It’s very embarrassing, but I’m thinking, ‘Better eat all I can.’ Deep down, I know that kind of eating is very unhealthy for me,” he says.

bowl of ramen

Advisors and health service providers at UC Berkeley started noticing an uptick in students showing signs of hunger or poor nutrition in 2010, according to Canedo. One student was left with $1 and an empty refrigerator because all of her disposable funds went to medical care, according to a University Health Services Tang Center report from March 2013. Another complained about fatigue and trouble concentrating to health providers, who traced the symptoms to missed meals. Several students reported subsisting entirely on peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches.

These reports, as well as the 2010 survey results on skipped meals, caught the attention of Harry Le Grande, vice chancellor of student affairs. Until then, he says he had assumed only students with dependents had trouble paying for nutritious food.

“Nobody would expect college students in this day and age to be food insecure,” he says. “Students are often embarrassed by it, and nobody really wants to talk about it. We often don’t keep pace with changing demographics as quickly as we should.”

Affording enough quality food is a challenge for more than just the lowest-income students, according to Le Grande. Some students from middle- or high-income families who aren’t eligible for financial aid struggle if their parents can’t or don’t give them money. In addition, the financial aid office may undervalue food costs because estimates are based on surveys of students who may already be cutting back on nutrition, notes Le Grande.

Cans of beans

Financial aid also falls short when students have to contribute to the family budget back home, or for undocumented students, who aren’t eligible for federal assistance, according to testimonials students provided to staff in 2013 and 2015. The standard meal plans for students who live on campus only covers 10 to 12 meals a week, and plans for non-resident students cover 5 to 11 meals. Some students reported to staff that they ran out of points, used to purchase food at campus dining halls and shops, before a semester ended. Dining halls are also closed for winter and spring breaks and during Thanksgiving, when many low-income or foreign students can’t afford a ticket home.

The growth of food insecurity at UC Berkeley reflects a trend at campuses across the country. Although there is no national data on the issue, studies over the past seven years at public colleges and universities in six states found that between 21 and 59 percent of undergraduates were “food insecure.” In each case, researchers defined food insecurity based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s definition of “limited or uncertain access to adequate food.” Those figures were well above the 14 percent of U.S. households that were considered food insecure in 2014.

A deficient diet can harm health and academic performance. Two studies, focused on Maryland community colleges and Western Oregon University, found that food insecure students were more likely to report lower grades. A January 2016 study of the California State University system—based on interviews, surveys and focus groups—found that food insecure students reported high levels of stress. Hunger can also weaken students’ immune systems, reduce focus, cause feelings of shame, and impair their ability to form social networks, according to the Tang Center report.

Despite his hardships, Carrasco is thriving: He’s on track to graduate in four years and to enroll in honors programs within his majors. Last month, his classmates elected him to serve as a senator for the Associated Students of the University of California, UC Berkeley’s student government. But not eating enough takes a toll.

“I work very hard in school and I do very well,” he says. “The one thing that stresses me out more than graduating on time, more than loans, more than my GPA is being hungry so much. It’s just very stressful.”

Despite recent efforts to address food insecurity at UC Berkeley and across the UC system—more about that here—Canedo and Le Grande agree there is ongoing need among students like Carrasco. “It’s still an issue, because we don’t have enough resources to meet the need,” says Le Grande. “We haven’t solved it, and it’ll continue to be something we need to pay attention to.”

Share this article