Food insecurity among UA students doubled during the pandemic


A graph from the AREC/NAFS 365 class which studied resource gaps among UA students. (Courtesy Na Zuo, Ph.D. and Anna Josephson, Ph.D. ) 

Percentages of food insecurity among University of Arizona students have doubled since the beginning of the pandemic, according to UA research conducted in fall 2020. 

Na Zuo and Patricia Sparks, assistant professors in the departments of agricultural & resource economics and nutritional sciences, co-taught the class behind the finding titled agricultural and resource economics/nutrition and food systems 365: The Food Economy – Efficiencies, Gaps and Policies. As part of the class, students analyzed data from a random sample of 10,000 students; 597 responded in both time periods. 

“The motivation for us to design and propose this new course is that we want to examine food economics through the food supply chain and especially what we call the food gaps, … which is food insecurity as well as food waste,” Zuo said. 

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The three levels of food security that were mentioned in this study were based on six questions regarding food security. If participants indicated through their answers that they were food insecure, they would get one point added to their raw score. The lower the number, the higher the level of food security. The survey used the United States Department of Agriculture’s standards for food security.

Zuo said the difference between food security levels in March of last year and November of last year were significant: The percentage of students who were at the highest food security level dropped from 75.88% to 59.46%, while the percentage of students who had low food security increased from 17.25% to 25.29%. She also said the percentage of students at the lowest level of food security dramatically increased from 6.87% to 15.24%.

The survey used a time comparison method to help illustrate the change the pandemic had in student life according to Zuo.

"You have this kind of record [of] this interruption, and it’s basically like a shock to people’s lives."

The survey also took race into account. Although 26% of respondents did not identify their race, the initial findings showed different changes for different races of students. According to Zuo, Native American students saw the largest change in food insecurity. Before the pandemic, she said no Native American students were identified as high food insecurity or low food security, but during the pandemic, 70.59% of Native American students in the survey were experiencing very low food security.* 

Outside of the data, people such as Anthony Rusk, the UA’s student regent for the Arizona Board of Regents, are working on some potential solutions.

Rusk is part of ABOR’s Food Insecurity and Housing Work Group, whose goal was to help alleviate food insecurity on college campuses. According to Rusk, food insecurity had different complexities for people after leaving high school.

“When you're in high school, you can get two free meals a day. You can get breakfast and lunch for free, thanks to government assistance at these high schools,” Rusk said. “However, once you get to university, those assistance items just don't exist anymore. So, you're kind of just on your own to figure out how to get breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. So, obviously, food insecurity gets worse at the university level. The issue is we really don't talk about that at all.”

Melanie Hingle, an associate professor for the department of nutrition sciences, contributed her expertise to the project. Hingle described insecurity and housing instability as two of the biggest threats to students’ academic success.

In order to help solve the issue, Hingle identified two important points. 

“I think to solve [food insecurity] at the University of Arizona, we need to have the information to understand the problem ... I think we need to engage the group of people who we want to help," Hingle said. "Anytime I've done a project, the only way to go about sort of ‘solving a problem’ is to understand it from the viewpoint of the people who are experiencing it as well."

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On April 12, the UA-specific portion of the project was awarded $174,155 through the 2021 provost investment fund, and in an upcoming April 16 ABOR meeting, Rusk will help present the group’s final report with recommendations. 

If you or anyone you know is living with food insecurity, visit the UA’s Center for Basic Needs website for details on Campus Pantry and other resources.

*Editor's Note: This article has been updated with study results.

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