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

By Katia Savchuk

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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Thanks again. You hit the right tone on this article that echoes my books, Cornucopia: Finding Food in America & Homeless at the Podium (an adjunct PhDs story). Keep in touch!
It would be interesting to know what the university is doing to address this issue.
Despicable! Some of the best educated students in the country, can’t afford to eat!
Shame on you, UC and UCB!
Here are some resources that might help those in need: There is a UC Berkeley food pantry with an additional “Bear pantry” in Albany: There are special clinics to help students apply for the Calfresh (food stamps) program: Cal has a student food assistance program: Any Berkeley or Albany resident can receive supplies from the Berkeley Food Pantry once a month:!need-food/c17wr The Alameda County food pantry has food assistance programs: There is a free daily community meal run by the Berkeley Food and Housing project: There is an app to help people get food when they need it: The Berkeley Student Organic Garden often has extra produce, or you can join it and grow your own food:…/uc-berkeleys-student-run-garden…/ The Spiral Gardens Community Food Security Project provides food for those who need it: You can forage for fruit in your neighborhood:
Today in America half of all wealth is in the hands of one person in 100 (and 28% of it is in the hands of one person in 1000 — 160,000 families among 320 million of us) and half of us (50%) together own less than 1% of it. It’s not only UC Berkeley college students who are going hungry; many many millions of American children are. America’s public health statistics today come in 37th in the world, and our distribution of wealth is similarly abysmal compared to most of the world. Meanwhile, a tiny hereditary oligarchy has usurped control of our economy and of our government and operates both purely in the interest of its predatory greed. Until we start to address these fundamental problems, things are only going to continue getting worse. It’s a shame that UC Berkeley students are going hungry but I am much more, and more fundamentally, ashamed to see how little my alma mater contributes to solving them and how much it (“she”) contributes to perpetuating and compounding them.
Please include resources like and the ones listed in “Cal Alum’s” comment in your article, not just facts and figures, in case someone reading this may need access to food and financial aid.
There will be a story on that coming this week!
I hate to point out the obvious but I’m fairly sure that most of us ate a lot top ramen during college (10 cents) to stay full. Most of us had jobs as well. I’m not as lucky to have walked away also 100% debt free as it sounds like he may be able to do as I did need to pay for tuition, books, housing and health insurance. Would it not make sense to find a job with more hours…? As someone in my early twenties I was able bodied and willing to work more hours if needed to take care of myself. I didn’t look to the university to take care of every one of my basic needs….
Jenn, during grad school, my diet was pizza and hot dogs; but, point well taken.
As the daughter of a former Cal student who had to leave before graduating due to lack of funds, and as the mother of a current Cal freshman, this is unacceptable. Cal does not support its undergraduates enough financially. In an expensive Bay Area housing and cost of living region, it is unacceptable to think that 18 and 19 year olds will be able to fend for themselves in the current unaffordable housing crisis. Cost cutting measures proposed by the current chancellor will further degrade the little support current students have. Fiat lux?
Sorry to burst everyone’s bubble, but as a Cal undergrad (BSChE) who did suffer through tight times to the point I spent almost a single semester either sleeping in my car or in one of the labs in Gilman Hall (violating of course the College of Chemistry rules), I can tell you that the vast reason that most students wind up skipping meals isn’t because they didn’t have funds available but due to poor budgeting practices, and for preferring fast/convenience food over cooking their own meals. In may ways they are simply practicing what they have learned from both K-12 public school AND college/university administrators in spending money on things they want instead of what they need, then whining about their budgetary shortfalls to the rest of the world…
Thank a good part of that expense to the rental property owners of Berkeley, who make high-minded statements about caring for the poor, but pushing policies that keep housing supplies tight, allowing them to maximize their rents in a restricted market. Anytime anyone proposes any type of substantial residential construction, the NIMBYs come out of the woodwork, complaining about “the view”, “gentrification”, traffic/parking issues, environmental concerns, “preserving the character of the community”, “greedy developers”, or any other excuse to prevent new construction of apartments and studios that could be used by students. Meanwhile, the land that UC owns in Berkeley and Albany can’t be used for housing because local activists think it’s more important to have squatting acreage for transients. druggies, alkies, gutter punks, petty criminals, and urban farmer wanna-bes. The fact of the matter is that the liberal progressives of Berkeley who profess superficial love for Cal Berkeley are for the most part parasites who make life miserable for the average Cal student. Maybe it’s time to move the entire Berkeley campus out to UC Merced, with plentiful cheap land, a local population that will appreciate the jobs and revenue from student spending, and a lot less tolerance for the riff-raff and antics that make Berkeley the laughingstock of the nation…
Great points! I try to find and offer solutions including teaching financial literacy /budgeting/money management—- sharing my own lessons learned… mistakes and things that work/ed. First jobs/then the next & next —- if fortunate——can be a real change maker but spending that first paycheck can be another eye opening experience. Some students shared their plan—- to buy a Hummer—- until we priced it our during one session —- and then, created a realistic budget. Not just complaining by trying to work together to solve problems. It’s not easy…
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. Sorry to be the contrarian, but this article grossly distorts the problem even when the numbers are staring the author in the face. $10/day for food is NOT outrageous - the real problems are the rising costs of tuition and housing. Once again, the local policies of the city of Berkeley, as well as the UCs inability to show some spine and stand up to the militants who have in effect seized UC property for their own purposes, result in students paying a disproportionate amount for housing. Let’s put the “food insecurity” song and dance to rest, and start dealing with real problems.
The Berkeley Food Pantry located at the Friends Church, corner of Cedar and Sacramento Streets, is open to Albany and Berkeley residents, Monday, Wednesday, Friday from 2 - 4 PM. Groceries include lots of fresh vegetables, meat, dairy, bread, dry staples, and canned goods. Residents are welcome to come once per month. AC Transit stops in front.
I don’t understand why these students whinning about ” 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.” You choose to go to this school to get good education so you should do everything it takes to get it. While not manage your time to work so you can have money for food. This problem don’t bother us, immigrants who risk their life to come here for education. Thanks UCB for giving me everything to pursue my dream.
Thanks for looking at this serious issue. Hunger is much more widespread than is commonly suspected. In this light, I find it troublesome that UC Berkeley is leasing the fertile land that once housed agricultural research to a shopping mall. Please take a look at this video report I just completed about a UC Grad student who has a better idea of what to do with this land.
You would tell a hungry student at one of the most competitive colleges in the world to just “work more hours”? Should students be living frugally? Yes, but the Top Ramen trope is tired - pursuing an education shouldn’t be synonymous with malnutrition, hunger, and extreme stress. Food is a basic human right. Would you say this to a student who has a child? As if they can just produce more hours in a day, and more availability of childcare to make more money?? Your comment should read “As an *able bodied* person who is not in school full time, I have the +right+ to work full time and make lots of money.” *Not every student is able bodied. ++International students and Undocumented students aren’t legally allowed to work more than 20 hours a week on campus.
It is a very serious issue. Thanks for awareness.
How can ordinary concerned citizens help?