Penn State University: Penn State shares results of Food and Housing Needs Survey

On May 5, Penn State Student Affairs released the results of the Food and Housing Needs Survey, which was conducted in fall 2021 among a random sample of students at the University Park campus. The survey, the results of which are available in a summary report, was emailed in late fall 2021 to a random sample of 10,000 undergraduate and 3,000 graduate/professional students at Penn State’s University Park campus and generated 2,051 responses. The results have provided University leaders with additional, important insight into the prevalence and nature of student needs in the area of food and housing security and are informing next steps.

The survey confirmed that a need exists among some students on the University Park campus, with 24.1% of respondents indicating they have some trouble securing food daily and 16.8% indicating they have some trouble securing adequate housing, reflecting similar trends at colleges and universities nationwide based on the Hope Center #RealCollege survey report. Results show heightened impacts among respondents who self-identified as members of an underrepresented minority group, international students, students who have disabilities, or students who self-identified as sexually diverse or gender diverse, also in line with national trends.

“Food and housing insecurity are important challenges that face many students, both here at Penn State and nationally. This preliminary survey has provided valuable insight into the need we know exists among some of our students, including information about the impact on their everyday well-being. Though there is more to learn from follow-up surveys and through continued work with our community, the results add depth to our understanding of the need we know exists among some of our students,” said Penn State President Eric J. Barron. “We value every student at Penn State and it’s important for us to continue in our work to address food and housing insecurity, so our students are able to thrive and make the most of their Penn State experience.”

Barron said this initial survey is only the latest step in a series of initiatives to address this complex challenge, and that among the University’s next steps will be an additional survey in fall 2022, which will include students at Penn State’s Commonwealth Campuses.

Housing and food insecurity among students has been a steady focus for Barron’s administration, which established a University Task Force on Food and Housing Security in 2020 to evaluate food and housing insecurity as part of overarching efforts focused on access and affordability for Pennsylvania resident students and their families. The task force completed its assessment and shared its recommendations in March 2021, and the University is currently advancing a number of new initiatives as a result. These include housing scholarships and improvements to the student-run Lion’s Pantry at University Park, and pantries at Commonwealth Campuses. Barron and his wife, Molly, personally committed $525,000 to establish the Eric and Molly Barron Student Food Security Endowment, which will provide University meal plans for undergraduate students who encounter food insecurity.

The survey included questions around food and housing security, affordability and accessibility of food and housing, current employment, current financial resources or support, the impact of food or housing insecurity on academic responsibilities, and overall health and well-being. Students also were asked if they would like to be contacted about resources, and Student Care and Advocacy followed up with all who indicated interest to discuss their needs and provide them with access to resources.

Additional findings from this initial survey included:

While 24.1% of students indicated that they identify “moderately well” to “extremely well” with the statement that they “have trouble securing enough food each day,” more than half of the respondents reported that they had to take measures to eat less over the last 30 days, including cutting or reducing the size of a meal, eating less because there was not enough money for food, or being hungry because of not eating.

Among respondents who indicated that they ate less because there was not enough money for food, 66.7% were recipients of public assistance programs, such as Medicaid, utility assistance, unemployment compensation, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits or veterans’ benefits.

Among respondents, U.S. students who self-identified as African American or Black; Hispanic or Latinx; Native American or Alaskan Native; Middle Eastern, North African, Arab or Arab American; Southeast Asian, Pacific Islander or Native Hawaiian; other Asian or Asian-American; or other (19.9%) and international students (35.2%) responded that they have trouble securing food each day at a higher rate than U.S. students who self-identified as white (10%).

On average, respondents who self-identified as having a disability (49.5%) were more likely to indicate that they could not afford to eat balanced meals than students who did not report a disability (32.9%). Similarly, students who self-identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, queer, questioning, or not listed when asked about sexual orientation indicated they could not afford to eat a balanced meal at a higher rate (42.8%) than heterosexual students (33.7%).

Sexually diverse students (students who indicated gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, queer, questioning, or not listed when asked about sexual orientation) were more likely to leave their household because they felt unsafe (5.5%) compared to heterosexual students (2.3%). Gender diverse students (students who responded transgender, genderqueer, gender nonconforming, nonbinary, or not listed when asked about gender) showed a similar trend (4%) compared with women (3%) and men (2.9%).

3% of respondents reported being in difficult housing situations, including living with others beyond the capacity of the house or apartment, living in a situation where they felt unsafe, or having to move often; 4% reported facing legal consequences from their housing situations, such as defaulting on an account or having to appear in housing court.

Among respondents, 54% indicated they have a current job, including work-student and graduate assistantships; 15% work more than 40 hours per week.

Among students who completed the survey, 13.5% reported that housing or food concerns impacted their ability to focus on their academic responsibilities and 27.5% reported that they lost weight due to food insecurity.

“These initial survey results reflect what students have told us about the experience too many of their peers are having as they struggle to make ends meet. This challenge affects students from all backgrounds, but it seems most prevalent among underrepresented groups on campus, including international students, students of color, students with disabilities, and gender and sexually diverse students,” said Damon Sims, vice president for Student Affairs. “Clearly, we must do more, and we are, and our students have joined with us in important partnerships aimed at addressing this problem. We are expanding the staff in Student Care and Advocacy to provide the centralized and focused oversight these efforts will require, and we are bringing together the many well-intentioned, but disparate, efforts that already exist at Penn State, so that we are better positioned to meet these growing needs.”

A nationwide challenge
Food and housing insecurity can look different for everyone. A 2021 report from the Hope Center summarizes the responses from a fall 2020 survey on student basic-needs insecurity. Drawn from the responses of more than 195,000 students attending 202 colleges and universities nationwide, the report showed college students are increasingly experiencing food and housing insecurity, which can have a range of academic, social, emotional and health-related consequences. The report shows nearly 3 in 5 students at participating colleges and universities faced basic needs insecurity, with food insecurity impacting 29% of respondents at four-year institutions and housing insecurity impacting 48% of respondents.

Next steps
As a follow up to this initial survey, Penn State plans for an additional food and housing needs survey in fall 2022, which will include all Commonwealth Campuses, as the University continues to implement changes to address these issues.

The summary report provides an initial analysis of the data; however, Penn State’s Task Force on Food and Housing Security and additional campus and community partners will continue to look at the data to provide additional analysis to the University community. Anyone interested in exploring certain questions within the data can contact the Student Affairs Research and Assessment Office at saraoffice@psu.edu.

A multi-pronged approach
In addition to the formation of the Task Force on Food and Housing Security and the advancement of new initiatives that have come out of that work, Penn State also has partnered with Swipe Out Hunger, which gives students at every campus the option to donate to the Penn State Student Emergency Fund when they pay for their meal at any residential dining facility or via a mobile order.

The University Park Undergraduate Association, in coordination with Student Affairs, formed the Student Advisory Board on Student Poverty in October 2021. The board released its set of recommendations in March 2022, central to which was the creation of a new office to aid students who are struggling to access basic resources. Sims is working with the board, colleagues and student leaders on an action plan for moving these recommendations forward, which includes adding to the team of professionals in Student Care and Advocacy who focus on these challenges and coordinating the University’s response to students with food and housing needs.

If you are facing food or housing insecurity
“Students facing food and housing challenges should not hesitate to let us know. We want to be helpful in every way we reasonably can, but our help requires students to share their needs with us openly. That’s not always easy to do, but our time, attention and care are readily available to any student who requires and seeks them,” Sims said.

For students who may be facing challenges with food or housing security, Sims said resources are available at every campus. All Penn State Commonwealth Campuses have food pantries on campus or in the community. In addition, Student Affairs has staff who can assist students in determining eligibility for public assistance and navigating the application processes for these programs.

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