Document Type


Publication Date



Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design


Animal and Nutritional Sciences


Background: College students may be vulnerable to food insecurity due to limited financial resources, decreased buying power of federal aid, and rising costs of tuition, housing, and food. This study assessed the prevalence of food insecurity and its sociodemographic, health, academic, and food pantry correlates among first-year college students in the United States. Methods: A cross-sectional study was conducted among first-year students (n = 855) across eight U.S. universities. Food security status was assessed using the U.S. Department of Agriculture Adult Food Security Survey Module. Cohen’s Perceived Stress Scale, Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index, and Eating Attitudes Test-26 were used to assess perceived stress, sleep quality, and disordered eating behaviors, respectively. Participants self-reported their grade point average (GPA) and completed questions related to meal plan enrollment and utilization of on-campus food pantries. Results: Of participating students, 19% were food-insecure, and an additional 25.3% were at risk of food insecurity. Students who identified as a racial minority, lived off-campus, received a Pell grant, reported a parental education of high school or less, and did not participate in a meal plan were more likely to be food-insecure. Multivariate logistic regression models adjusted for sociodemographic characteristics and meal plan enrollment indicated that food-insecure students had significantly higher odds of poor sleep quality (OR = 2.32, 95% CI: 1.43–3.76), high stress (OR = 4.65, 95% CI: 2.66–8.11), disordered eating behaviors (OR = 2.49, 95% CI: 1.20–4.90), and a GPA < 3.0 (OR = 1.91, 95% CI: 1.19–3.07) compared to food-secure students. Finally, while half of the students (56.4%) with an on-campus pantry were aware of its existence, only 22.2% of food-insecure students endorsed utilizing the pantry for food acquisition. Conclusions: Food insecurity among first-year college students is highly prevalent and has implications for academic performance and health outcomes. Higher education institutions should screen for food insecurity and implement policy and programmatic initiatives to promote a healthier college experience. Campus food pantries may be useful as shortterm relief; however, its limited use by students suggest the need for additional solutions with a rights-based approach to food insecurity. Trial Registration: Retrospectively registered on, NCT02941497.

Source Citation

El Zein, A., Shelnutt, K. P., Colby, S., Vilaro, M. J., Zhou, W., Greene, G., Olfert, M. D., Riggsbee, K., Morrell, J. S., & Mathews, A. E. (2019). Prevalence and correlates of food insecurity among U.S. college students: a multi-institutional study. BMC Public Health, 19(1).


© The Author(s). 2019 Open Access This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made. The Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication waiver ( applies to the data made available in this article, unless otherwise stated



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