DENTON (UNT), Texas — A University of North Texas professor found that college students who are food insecure often experience a variety of negative emotions and mental health issues as a result. She is now continuing her research with a focus on how COVID-19 has affected that experience.
Professor Lisa Henry, chair of the Department of Anthropology, started researching campus food insecurity in 2014 as part of a project with one of her classes. The class didn’t analyze statistics or numbers. Instead, they looked deeper, interviewing students, conducting focus groups and gathering information about how experiencing food insecurity affected college students.
“Nationally, around 11.5% of Americans are food insecure,” Henry said. “College students are suffering and experiencing food insecurity at the highest rate of any subgroup of food insecure people in the country.”
In the five years since that project, Henry has spoken to dozens of students on UNT’s campus, worked with the Dean of Students office to apply her research to help the UNT Food Pantry better serve students based on what the students themselves said during interviews and considered how her research can help campuses across the country.
“My research is the largest qualitative study that has been done that dives deep into the issues of experiences, coping, and mental health,” Henry said. “What administrators should understand is the first thing you need to do is know your own student body. The group of students who are experiencing food insecurity at one university look very different than the group of students who are experiencing food insecurity at another university or community college. If a program is really successful in California, that may not be the program that you need at Barnard in New York. Don’t just take one program that goes well from one setting and plop it into another setting. You’ve got to know your students.”
Through her work, she found that many of the students experienced shame and mental health problems in connection to food insecurity. Her work with the Dean of Students office helped put the research to practical use, moving the UNT Food Pantry to a location that offered less exposure for students seeking help and working to reduce the stigma of food insecurity.
“They’re not going to go to a community food bank or a community soup kitchen,” Henry said. “Some of them will, but the vast majority think that’s for women and children, that’s for people who are really, really poor. Students say to themselves, ‘I’m choosing to go to college. I could stop going to college and I wouldn’t be food insecure.’ They don’t see those community resources for them because, in part, it’s a conscientious decision to make the sacrifice so they can get a degree.”
While she published her research in 2019, hoping to help administrators understand what students are experiencing, she continued to research the topic. When COVID-19 hit, she started working with one of her classes to dive in to how the pandemic changed the student experience with hunger.
“I think this is a really important conversation to have. People are living through this in secret, it’s not something that they share with a lot of people. What we’re not capturing is the people who didn’t come back to school at all.”