Students and nutrition don’t always go hand in hand. Spend time on campus and sooner or later someone will be bragging about finals week fueled by cheap ramen, or weekends spent subsisting on leftover pizza. Similar diets in young schoolchildren would be alarming; When it comes to college, foreigners and students tend to laugh about it or view poor nutrition as a rite of passage in college. But there’s a more unsettling side to this stale, pizza-filled weekend.

Recent surveys reveal that up to 41% of American college students report having had limited or uncertain access to food in the past 30 days. It’s a chronic problem that dates back years, fueled by rising tuition fees and, more recently, runaway food inflation hurting families and businesses across the United States. The consequences are serious: students deprived of food show poorer academic results. Worse still, the negative outcomes are hitting black, first-generation and two-year-old students the hardest, deepening the racial and income inequalities that college should play a role in reducing.

Last week, the Biden administration announced an initiative to address hunger and food insecurity. Some of the largest corporations and philanthropies in the United States have engaged, many of them with a strong and understandable focus on nutrition for low-income families and school children. But university students received almost no attention. This is a mistake, and private and public entities have the tools to fix it.

The cost of a meal plan at US colleges averaged $563 per month in 2021. Students already burdened with spiraling tuition debt may choose not to go into debt for years to eat . But even those who choose to pay for a meal plan often have to find ways to pay for food on weekends, during breaks, and in the middle of a late-night prep session. Part-time employment and rotating assignments offer some relief, but inflation is eroding those low-end wages, just as it is eroding the wages of other low-income Americans.

The consequences for students can be serious. Food insecurity contributes to a range of negative psychological and health impacts. Numerous studies have also shown that it contributes to poorer academic performance and reduced graduation rates. The impacts are not evenly distributed across US college campuses. For example, researchers last year found that three-quarters of students at four historically black colleges and universities reported some level of food insecurity. This far exceeds reported levels for white students. Working parents, low-income students, and community college students also show higher levels of food insecurity.

Unfortunately, this problem is not new. In 1993, Michigan State University students responded to campus hunger by creating the first student-run campus pantry. They and other students across the United States clearly saw a pressing need. As of 2021, there were at least 352 on-campus pantries serving thousands of undergraduate and graduate students. Most pantries are located in public institutions.

But expensive elite colleges are not immune. Harvard and Stanford — both of which charge more than $50,000 a year for undergraduate tuition — also provide pantries. The Harvard Crimson recently reported that Harvard pantries are attracting low-income students struggling with high rents, low wages and expensive groceries to the Cambridge area, among others.

The responsibility to address student food insecurity rests with colleges and universities. When an institution’s students struggle to feed themselves, then it is forced to think seriously about what it is asking financially of students and what it is able to give back. Providing and funding space for student-run pantries should be the bare minimum. To ensure that these pantries operate as efficiently as possible, higher education institutions should facilitate and, where possible, support partnerships with established food banks, distribution networks and restaurants.

Colleges and universities can also empower students to help their classmates by establishing a “Swipe Out Hunger” program. The idea is simple: students can donate unwanted or unused meal “shots” from their meal plans to a “shot bank” which eligible students can then access digitally (and without drawing attention to themselves). -same). Swipe Out Hunger programs are already operating successfully on campuses across the United States.

But on-campus support is not sufficient or appropriate for all students, especially older students and those with children. Colleges and universities looking to address food insecurity should also help students access off-campus support programs, including the Federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP (formerly known as the name of food stamps). Meanwhile, Congress should work with the Biden administration to expand SNAP eligibility so more students can access its benefits. Currently, students enrolled at least half-time in a higher education institution are not eligible for SNAP unless they meet restrictive exemptions.

Finally, these efforts should go hand in hand with some public self-reflection by college leaders. Does it make academic, financial, or ethical sense to admit students who cannot afford both tuition and adequate nutrition? There are no easy answers. Unfortunately, for millions of students, it’s not just an academic matter. As tuition fees and food prices soar, this is a daily reality.

More other writers at Bloomberg Opinion:

Hunger and obesity are the same problem in the United States: Faye Flam

Putin shows that food becomes the ultimate weapon: Hal Brands

To fight hunger, we need to fix food subsidies: David Fickling

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Asia, technology and the environment. He is the author, most recently, of “Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale”.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion