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The hidden crisis on college campuses: 36 percent of students don't have enough to eat

Caleb Torres, a George Washington University student, regularly skipped meals his freshman year because he didn't have enough money to buy food. Washington Post photo by Bill O'Leary.

Caleb Torres lost seven pounds his freshman year of college - and not because he didn't like the food in the dining hall. A first-generation college student, barely covering tuition, Torres ran out of grocery money halfway through the year and began skipping meals as a result.

He'd stretch a can of SpaghettiOs over an entire day. Or he'd scout George Washington University campus for events that promised free lunch or snacks. Torres told no one what he was going through, least of all his single mom.

"She had enough things to worry about," he said.

Now a senior and living off-campus, in a housing situation that supplies most of his meals, Torres is finally talking about his experience with the hunger problem on America's college campuses: a quiet, insidious epidemic that researchers say threatens millions of students every year.

According to a first-of-its-kind survey released Tuesday by researchers at Temple University and the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, 36 percent of students on U.S. college campuses do not get enough to eat, and a similar number lack a secure place to live. The report, which is the first to include students from two-year, four-year, private and public universities, including GWU, found that nearly 1 in 10 community college students have gone a whole day without eating in the past month. That number was 6 percent among university students.

Researchers blame ballooning college costs, inadequate aid packages and growing enrollment among low-income students - as well as some colleges' unwillingness to admit they have a hunger problem. College hunger is not a new issue, researchers caution. But it appears to be growing worse, and not merely because college is getting more expensive.

"Prices have gone up over time," said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of higher education policy at Temple and the lead author of the report. "But the rising price is just a piece. This is a systemic problem."

Goldrick-Rab's report is based on data from 43,000 students at 66 schools and used the Department of Agriculture's assessment for measuring hunger. That means the thousands of students it classifies as having "low food security" aren't merely avoiding the dining hall or saving lunch money for beer: They're skipping meals, or eating smaller meals, because they don't have enough money for food.

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