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Intersectionality: DEI and Food Insecurity on College Campuses

Policy and Advocacy Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice
June 27, 2024 Nia Carter NASPA

Whether it be from the food that you shop for in the grocery store or the plates from the cafeteria, the realization one has stemming from the cost of food is an experience that every college student encounters. But what about the students who can not afford the meal plan? What if there are underlying institutional systems forces that prevent you from accessing the resources needed to subside your hunger? The realization mentioned is one that involves fear of the unknown and stress like no other. It is no surprise that food insecurity on college campuses is prevalent, and there have been significant strides to alleviate this issue. However, the introduction of new anti-Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) legislation now threatens student support practices that help combat food insecurity for college students.   

As we have seen throughout the country, anti-DEI legislation has slowly entered the educational atmosphere with the intention of limiting  DEI practices in institutions. Since 2023, there have been at least 85 new anti-DEI bills introduced by state legislators. While many people have been focused solely on combating these bills, it is imperative to recognize the importance of DEI within the education system, specifically when it comes to food insecurity on college campuses. As brilliantly stated by the University of Washington, DEI is not just a phrase. Each word speaks to distinct values. They define each component of DEI in the following way: 

  • Diversity is the presence of differences that enrich our workplace. 
  • Equity is ensuring that access, resources, and opportunities are provided for all to succeed and grow, especially for those who are underrepresented and have been historically disadvantaged. 
  • Inclusion is a culture that is welcoming to ALL people regardless of race, ethnicity, sex, gender identity, age, abilities,and religion and everyone is valued, respected and able to reach their full potential.

Creating a campus culture that highlights and appreciates the benefits DEI brings to the classroom allows for students to thrive in different environments with various perspectives. However, many assume that DEI is incorporated only within a classroom setting, focusing on controversial subjects such as areas relating to gender studies and racial equality. This is not the case. DEI intersects with multiple facets of student life including dining services, mental health, student leadership, mentoring programs, and multicultural organizations. Food insecurity on college campuses directly correlates with equity, as The American Journal of Health Education noted that 32% of undergraduate students identified as food insecure. Of the most impacted, the greatest disparities were faced by Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and low-income students. 

In 2023, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) at the U.S. Department of Education reported that 23% of undergraduates, and 12% of graduate students, are experiencing food insecurity. This means more than 4 million students are food insecure. Students who are historically disadvantaged are more likely to struggle with food insecurity, but many fail to speak to those in student affairs positions about their situation due to either embarrassment, lack of confidence in how authority figures can help, or shame. An article from the Public Health Nutrition Journal stresses the importance of the intersection of DEI and food insecurity on college campuses. It asserts that “as higher education institutions continue to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion on campus, it is increasingly important to address food insecurity as a means to create health equity among students on campus.” They defined health equity as “the personal agency and fair access to resources and opportunities needed to achieve the best possible physical, emotional and social well-being.” With the lack of food equity within college campuses, students who struggle with food security are more likely to fall behind in classes and struggle socially, which increases the possibility of dropping out.  

To better serve these communities, student affairs professionals must understand and educate both students and administrators of the possible challenges that arise and resources to relieve the stressors of food scarcity. As efforts to increase access for underrepresented students continues to be undermined, it is important for student affairs professionals in states that have been impacted by this adversity to be aware of ways to combat anti-DEI legislation and its implications on the efforts to address food insecurity on campus. Food insecurity can be diminished with the establishment of on-campus food pantries, meal swipe donations, community partnerships, and more. It is helpful to contact your local food bank and community centers such as faith-based centers and non profit organizations like Feeding America to help with this effort. Students who identify as food insecure as well as those who hold marginalized identities should benefit from the services that were curated for them. Student affair professionals must be intentionally advertising these resources consistently, especially with the difficulty that anti-DEI legislation presents.

For some students, food insecurity may be a temporary circumstance. For others, it is their persistent reality. When grabbing a quick bite at the cafeteria or a snack from the grocery store, remember the hardships some students may be enduring. The difficulties associated with the dismissal of DEI practices highlight a critical need for a supportive campus environment. To the administrators and student affairs professionals who do have the ability to make change on campuses, it is important to keep in mind what students may be going through. The intersectionality of DEI allows for student retention, a positive working environment, workforce preparation, and a student-focused culture. By prioritizing DEI across all aspects of college life, it ensures the potential for every student to succeed. 

  1. “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Definitions.” UW Research, 23 Sept. 2021, www.washington.edu/research/or/office-of-research-diversity-equity-and-inclusion/dei-definitions/. 
  2. Willis, D. E. . Feeding the student body: Unequal food insecurity among college students. American Journal of Health Education, 50(3), 167–175. 2019, https://doi.org/10.1080/19325037.2019.1590261
  3. Mckibben, Bryce, et al. “New Federal Data Confirm That College Students Face Significant-and Unacceptable-Basic Needs Insecurity.” The Hope Center, Temple University , 3 Aug. 2023, hope.temple.edu/npsas.
  4. Savoie-Roskos, Mateja R et al. “Creating a culture that supports food security and health equity at higher education institutions.” Public health nutrition, vol. 26,3 1-7. 2 Nov. 2022, doi:10.1017/S1368980022002294
Additional Resources: 
  1. Education Trust. Anti-DEI Efforts Across the US  
  2. NASPA. Countering Political Attacks on DEI: Resources for student affairs professionals 
  3. NASPA. Equity Inclusion and Social Justice (Focus Area) 
  4. NASPA. Food Insecurity on Campus (Course)