Mass College Hunger is a Statistical Sham

The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal sponsored a debate between myself and four of the leading academic activists on food insecurity among college students. Here is a list of those experts; my piece is reposted below.

Sara Goldrick-Rab is Professor of Higher Education Policy & Sociology at Temple University, and Founding Director of the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice in Philadelphia.

Nicholas Freudenberg is distinguished professor of public health at the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy and director of the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute.

Suzanna Martinez is an assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California-San Francisco School of Medicine.

Aydin Nazmi is a professor of food science and nutrition at California Polytechnic State University.

Here’s a testy response to my piece from one of those authors:


Mass College Hunger Is a Statistical Sham

by James Bovard

Some college students are going hungry nowadays, as some collegians have gone hungry since medieval times when students rioted in the streets of Oxford, Cambridge, and Heidelberg. Some college students are not eating meals that nutritionists would approve, as was commonplace with the 25 cent Kraft macaroni and cheese boxes students ate in the 1970s or the ramen noodles students relied on in the 1980s and 1990s. But where did presidential candidate Bernie Sanders get the notion that “nearly half our college students are going hungry?”

From Professor Sara Goldrick-Rab and her team at the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice. According to the Hope Center, 45 percent of college students  were “food insecure” in the prior 30 days based on their survey. The 45 percent figure comes from questionnaires that tap sentiments and opinions, not actual food consumption. If someone fears missing a single meal, they can be categorized as “food insecure” regardless of how much they ate. If someone feels they need organic food but can only afford conventional food, they can be labeled “food insecure.” Many media outlets uncritically took the Hope Center report and converted it into a national emergency.  A New York Times headline proclaimed: “Nearly Half of College Students Surveyed in a New Report Are Going Hungry.”

Goldrick-Rab recently lamented that “the real story is the federal government hasn’t even bothered to collect nationally representative data” on student hunger. Actually, the feds do have solid data which undermines the Hope Center report.

Based on a thorough Census Bureau national survey, the Agriculture Department reported last September that 5.9 percent of American households were “food insecure” within the past 30 days. The federal survey was far broader and more representative than the Hope Center report. The Agriculture Department explicitly warns the media that food insecurity is not a measure of hunger, but the Hope Center omits that warning label.

The Hope Center claims that college students are 762 percent more “food insecure” than average Americans. This makes no sense unless one presumes that students are practically a persecuted minority with suffering rates akin to people stranded on Pacific islands after shipwrecks. The Hope Center’s definition of “food insecurity” includes “the limited or uncertain…ability to acquire such foods in a socially acceptable manner.” If someone dreaded being seen food shopping at Walmart, would that mean they are food insecure because they were stressed to afford Whole Foods prices? In 2018, the Center reported that 26 percent of students with a college meal plan were “food insecure.” But how did students oversleeping and missing breakfast become part of a national crisis?

Relying on food security surveys to gauge college hunger is like estimating the number of suicidal collegians by asking how many students had any unhappy thoughts in the prior 30 days.

It is a mistake to rely on food security opinion surveys when actual health data is available on college students.

The wild variance of estimates on college hunger is another reason to distrust alarmist data. The Urban Institute, a respected Washington research organization, relied on credible federal data to estimate that “11 percent of households with a student in a 4-year college experienced food insecurity.”  A 2017 study published in the American Journal of Health Promotion found that “15 percent of student respondents at one 4-year college experienced food insecurity, with an additional 16 percent of student respondents at that college estimated to be at-risk for food insecurity.”  What is “at-risk for food insecurity?” Does that mean that someone had second thoughts late at night about not chomping another slice of pizza? In 2017, the Hope Center claimed that “as many as two-thirds of students were food insecure.”  Pick a number, any number—but make it high enough to stampede the media.

Did something happen in the last decade or so to vastly decrease the competence of college students to handle the daily life challenges that other Americans surmount? Up to 25 percent of students at some colleges are now claiming to have some type of mental or psychiatric disability in order to receive more time to take tests or other accommodations or privileges thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act. Should we also presume that college students have become unable or unwilling to feed themselves? Or should we presume that any student who misses a meal for any reason is somehow a victim of social injustice? And what would we find if we asked about the average “food insecure” student’s discretionary spending on alcohol, drugs, coffee, and cell phones?

Hyperbole on hungry college students is often part of a push for universal free college tuition. (The HOPE Center acronym initially stood for Harvesting Opportunities for Postsecondary Education.) Vastly exaggerating college student hunger invites political takeovers of American higher education. According to The Nation, Goldrick-Rab’s “dream” is to have a federal program to feed food-insecure college students modeled after the national school lunch program for elementary and secondary students. School lunch programs have been dietary disasters, spurring increased obesity and diabetes.

It is a mistake to rely on food security opinion surveys when actual health data is available on college students. The percentage of students who were overweight or obese rose from 23 percent to 41 percent during their four years in college, according to a 2017 Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior report. A 2016 study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior found that the average student gained ten pounds during their four years in college. College students, like other Americans, are far more likely to be vexed by obesity than by food shortages.

In 2006, the National Academy of Sciences urged the Agriculture Department to find a way to measure actual hunger, rather than relying on surveys on people’s memories and opinions about their diets. Unfortunately, the Agriculture Department did nothing to develop a far more reliable gauge. The United Nations estimated in 2017 that fewer than 2.5 percent of Americans are actually undernourished.

The growing controversy over suffering college students should be another propellant to devise a reliable gauge of hunger.  If that group of students can be identified, then far better responses could be devised than a new federal program to give free food to a class of people already prone to being overweight or obese.  In the meantime, any activist report that claims college students are 762 percent more “food insecure” than other Americans deserves far more skepticism than reverence.

James Bovard is the author of ten books, including the bestselling Lost Rights: The Destruction of American Liberty (1994). He is a member of the USA Today Board of Contributors and has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Playboy, and Washington Post.


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6 Responses to Mass College Hunger is a Statistical Sham

  1. MrLiberty February 19, 2020 at 6:09 pm #

    “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics.” – Benjamin Disraeli (although also attributed to others).

    Clearly these folks have an agenda. I agree that is the takeover of “higher” education by the feds, along with free everything for the willing snowflake parasites. Good of you to enter that den of wolves to try and inject some sanity….but sanity and facts are NOT part of their agenda.

    • Jim February 19, 2020 at 6:59 pm #

      Thanks. My impression from Twitter responses is that I was supposed to defer to their survey.

      • MrLiberty February 19, 2020 at 11:29 pm #

        You were supposed to defer to whatever met the pathetic expectations of those watching….truth, evidence, conflicting data, etc. be damned. How truly screwed are we as a nation when so many snowflakes exist, that evidence to the contrary will simply not be accepted because it hurts them emotionally?

  2. Shane Skekel February 20, 2020 at 10:48 am #

    It looks like Dr. Goldrick-Rab is unable to respond rationally and logically. What does that tell people?

  3. Jerry Kaufman February 20, 2020 at 5:25 pm #

    I think the good doctor Goldrick-Rab should probably have read your piece before attempting to respond to it

  4. Jett Rucker February 20, 2020 at 9:41 pm #

    College-student hunger? Give me a BREAK! Sympathy mongers are truly scraping the bottom of the barrel, here.