A professor at the Black Hills State University–Spearfish campus is working on a paper about food insecurity from data collected in spring 2019 and plans to do more research again this fall.
Trenton Ellis, Ph.D, assistant professor in human services and sociology, worked with his research methods class to collect responses from 300 students on campus. They found that 33.8% of the students surveyed would be classified as food insecure.
“I didn’t know what it would be, but I was not surprised we had the number that we did," Ellis said. "I’m glad it wasn’t higher, it would be nice to see it significantly lower, but I wasn’t really surprised.”
Food insecurity refers to the access people have to food at all times for an active, healthy life, according to the USDA. There are two classifications of food insecurity: low food security, which reports reduced quality, variety or desirability of diet; and very low food security, which reflects multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.
Ellis said it’s important to note what that breakdown looks like and what those classifications actually mean.
According to their data, only 15.8%, or 49 students, fell into the very low food security category, which means they answered the majority of the survey stating they were unable to eat or find food frequently over the past 30 days. However, students who answered three or four of the survey questions indicating they may be food insecure would fall into the same category.
Ellis said only 3.9% of students said they skipped an entire day of eating over the last month because they had difficulty affording food — some reported going eight to 10 days without eating in the 30-day window.
“That doesn’t seem like a high number to people, but it is when you consider that that’s a person that is skipping a day not because they forgot to eat or because they were too busy, but because they had difficulty affording food,” Ellis said.
He also said this isn’t a complete look at the campus or everyone who takes BHSU classes but rather an exploratory descriptive analysis and, as far as he knows, the first look at the problem on campus.
The study also found very few students knew there was a food pantry on the Spearfish campus.
The campus pantry was not available for comment by the time of publication.
Ellis said he wanted to acknowledge the work being done at the BHSU–Rapid City campus through the Human Services & Sociology Collective, which runs the student food pantry. The group recently stocked 825 pounds of food.
The group was not available for comment by the time of publication.
Feeding South Dakota reports that there are 4-14% of people in Lawrence County who suffer from food insecurity, but it’s unclear if that information includes the 3,858 students enrolled at BHSU.
A HOPE Lab national survey, “Still Hungry and Homeless in College,” that surveyed 43,000 students at 66 institutions in 20 states and the District of Columbia, found that 36% of university students were food insecure in the 30 days preceding their survey.
Even though the survey conducted by Ellis’ class was only about 8% of the BHSU–Spearfish population, it comes close to the HOPE Lab’s national findings.
HOPE Lab’s study also found that basic needs insecurities, like food and housing, disproportionately affected marginalized students and are associated with long work hours and higher risk of unemployment.
Ellis said food insecurity just adds another barrier or hurdle to what students have to face, particularly those who have lower income.
“The joke is (college students) eat ramen and the dollar menu, but if you actually kind of look behind that joke and think critically about that trope... there may be some actual concerns that this is the diet they might primarily be subsisting on and that this might not be by choice,” he said.
Ellis said he’s currently working on a paper about the findings, and plans on sending the survey out again this fall — there would have been more data from spring 2020 if it weren’t for the COVID-19 pandemic, he said. The survey will be spread to not only students on the Spearfish campus, but to those at the Rapid City campus and those taking online classes as well.
He said he hopes this information will lead to more conversations between universities and their students, bring attention to food pantries on campus, and destigmatize food insecurity.