Combatting Hunger and Homelessness on Campus

International students are facing food and housing insecurity on campuses across the United States. Programs and resources, especially over school breaks, can help students to succeed.
Photo: Hayden Williams/Stocksy

Maria Lopez* never expected that she would end up relying on the campus food pantry as an international student at a community college in Virginia. While she was studying business in the United States from 2017–19, both of her parents back home in Honduras became ill, which drastically changed her financial situation. (*Last name changed.)

“I had never asked for that kind of help. I have not been a rich person, but I have been able to pay my bills,” Lopez says. “I didn’t tell anybody. I didn’t tell my mom or my dad what I was going through that because that would be more worry for them.”

As an international student, Lopez paid more than twice as much per credit as in-state residents and had to be enrolled full time in order to maintain her F-1 visa status. She desperately wanted to finish her business degree, because if she had to return to Honduras early, “all the money that I already had invested would be thrown away.” But to do so, Lopez needed to first take care of her basic necessities. 

There is growing awareness of hunger—and in some cases, homelessness—among students like Lopez on U.S. college campuses. International students are not immune to food and housing insecurity, despite some perceptions that they are better off financially than their domestic peers. With high tuition and limited access to financial aid, some international students are forced to cut back on their food expenses, while others who live on campus sometimes face gaps in housing and access to meals when residence halls and dining services close over holiday breaks.

All of Lopez's money went toward fixed costs like tuition and rent. She skipped meals and avoided buying meat to help make ends meet, eventually turning to the campus food pantry. After being made aware, a professor helped her apply for an emergency grant that provides one-time financial support to students experiencing an enrollment-threatening financial emergency.

“I was waking up with anxiety, like when you can’t breathe and you feel like you’re drowning,” Lopez says. “If you can’t eat well, then you won’t be able to study well and finish strong.”

Lopez eventually found a part-time job that helped cover some of her expenses, but securing that job took time. Jobs on campus are highly competitive since international students are not allowed to work off campus, due to visa restrictions. Lopez was able to keep her grades up and graduated in May 2019 with a 3.87 GPA, but it came at the expense of her physical and mental health.

An All-Too-Common Scenario

Research indicates that international students like Lopez are just as vulnerable to food and housing insecurity as the overall student population—though the challenges they face generally receive less attention. 

A 2019 report from Temple University’s Hope Center for Community, College and Justice, College and University Basic Needs Insecurity: A National #RealCollege Survey—the largest longitudinal study of its kind—shows that nearly half of all college students may have experienced food insecurity, referring to a lack of access to healthy meals. Slightly more than half of students reported being housing insecure, which includes a broad set of challenges such as the inability to pay rent or utilities or the need to move frequently.

Though the study focuses on the entire student population, other research paints a troubling picture for international students in particular.

A 2018 study from the University of Florida, Why Are Hungry College Students Not Seeking Help, found that international students had a higher prevalence of food insecurity compared with domestic students. The report notes that the “international student population has received little attention when discussing food security despite being exposed to factors that increase their vulnerability to financial hardships,” including the fact that “tuition costs for international students are significantly higher” and “international students likely invest proportionally more of their budget towards the cost of earning a degree in the U.S.”

Another study from the University of Manitoba in Canada had similar findings: exchange students and international students were more likely to experience food insecurity than domestic nonindigenous peers, attributed partly to higher tuition. Furthermore, a qualitative study at Humboldt State University found that international students and scholars with families were more likely to experience food insecurity due to dependent spouses being unable to work.

In addition to food insecurity, research shows that international students may also experience housing insecurity and homelessness. A 2017 study of basic needs insecurity across the University of California system found that 8 percent of international students were homeless, largely due to institutional housing policies during holidays and breaks. A 2018 study of the California State University (CSU) system had similar findings; international students (15.7 percent) had higher than average homelessness compared to all students (10.9 percent).

Factors Behind Students’ Hardship

Behind the statistics are actual students on U.S. campuses facing hardship. Rashida Crutchfield, one of the authors of the CSU report and a social work professor at CSULong Beach, says students often rely on the financial support of their entire family to ensure that they are eligible to study in the United States.

While international students are required to provide evidence that they are able to cover the full cost of attendance at their university to receive their visa, it doesn’t always match their day-to-day financial reality.

Ismail Warsame, an international student case manager at Oregon State University (OSU), says that students’ finances might be impacted by divorce, retirement, natural disaster, and currency devaluations. “Their financial situation can change,” he says.

In the study, Crutchfield also spoke to international students who lived in cramped quarters in order to pay rent in California, which has one of the highest costs of living in the country. “One student [said] how lucky she felt because this year she had a mattress and wasn’t sleeping on the floor,” Crutchfield recounts. “A number of students, from a variety of places, spoke about these experiences.”

Limits of Student Employment

While most U.S. students can easily get a part-time job to help make ends meet, it is much more difficult for international students and scholars to do the same. Depending on their visa, there are restrictions on where and how many hours per week international students can work.

Students on F-1 visas are allowed to work on campus for up to 20 hours per week during the academic year and full time when school is not in session, according to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Because these students are limited to on-campus employment, demand often outstrips available positions. Students and scholars on J-1 visas must have authorization to work from their J-1 program sponsor.

There are provisions for both F-1 and J-1 holders to work off campus in cases of severe economic hardship that are beyond the student’s control, but permission is granted on a case-by-case basis. Circumstances may include large increases in tuition or living costs, currency devaluation, unforeseen changes in the conditions of a student’s sources of financial support, and unexpectedly large medical bills not covered by insurance.

Married students are allowed to obtain dependent visas for their spouses; F-2 spouses are not allowed to work, but J-2 spouses may obtain work authorization.

Additional barriers come in the form of culturally engrained attitudes and lack of knowledge about available resources. Warsame says that international students may be less likely to utilize on-campus resources, such as food pantries, because of the associated stigma. Crutchfield agrees that international students are sometimes afraid to ask for help. “Often our international students are hesitant to be seen as a burden,” she says. “And yet they’re such a resource to our community’s diversity.”

From the student perspective, Lopez in Virginia says that there are many resources available on college campuses, “but so much information is hidden.” International students might not be aware of existing resources and might be afraid to ask for help, she adds.

Crutchfield also talked to students, both international and domestic, who were “baffled by the nuances of support services,” she says. “With international students, just like other marginalized students, we need to have a high-contact approach.”

The Call to Action

International students experiencing financial hardship at OSU are often referred to Warsame for case management. “Any international student who mentions any sudden or unforeseen needs, they get elevated to me,” he says.

After conducting a needs assessment, Warsame sometimes coordinates with the business affairs office to work out a payment plan. “I have international students who have dropped out of school for $500,” he says. Warsame also works closely with staff in the financial aid office and the campus scholarship coordinator.

Houston Community College (HCC), which hosts the largest number of international students of any associate’s institution in the United States according to IIE, partners with local organizations such as the Houston Food Bank to combat food insecurity. “We  host over 6000 international students. Food, housing and transportation are real issues for international students,” says Nithy Sevanthinathan, director of international services.

HCC is particularly attuned to how natural disasters such as hurricanes can impact its students. During Hurricane Dorian in August 2019, the HCC Foundation provided up to $8,000 in tuition scholarships for Bahamian students who were impacted.

Programs and resources to address food and housing insecurity are critical, but unless international students know about them, they can’t use them.

OSU’s Human Resources Service Center offers a food pantry, showers, laundry facilities, a textbook lending program, and emergency housing support for any student who might be experiencing food or housing insecurity. Assistant director Nicole Hindes says that she makes sure that information about the center is available in multiple languages, and she tries to source food that is culturally appropriate, including halal meat.

Some campuses have recognized that there many resources that international students are not eligible to take advantage of, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the federal food stamp program. To remedy this imbalance, University of California- Los Angeles allots more vouchers for international and undocumented students who used the Swipe Out Hunger program. Swipe Out Hunger allows students to donate unused meal swipes to their peers experiencing food insecurity.

University of California-San Diego developed a similar food benefit program for undocumented and international students. Brown University is currently working with dining services to proactively identify students enrolled in meal plans who don’t have any swipes on their meal card, and then load those students’ cards with additional meals. It helps reduce stigma, says Asabe Poloma, associate dean for international students at Brown, and “preserves the dignity and the integrity of the individual.”

International students can benefit from campuswide efforts to combat basic needs insecurity. A survey at Brown University found that 22 percent of undergraduates reported skipping meals because they did not have enough money for food. Undergraduates who did not have a meal plan also experienced a greater prevalence of food insecurity. In early 2019, Provost Richard Locke convened an hoc food security working group to make recommendations to ensure that all Brown students have access to healthy food.

“We made a number of changes, including making specific meal plans mandatory for first- and second-year undergraduate students,” says Poloma. “The other university-wide change is that we have now institutionalized the practice of providing meal support to international undergraduate students who remain on campus during breaks—not just spring break, but also during winter break,” noting that the support is available to all students, not just international students.

The Breaking Point

Holiday and other school breaks are the time when international students facing food or housing insecurity feel the pain most acutely. Institutions across the country have come up with creative ways to ease the burden and accommodate international students’ needs.

“One of those hidden costs for international students is how to navigate interruptions of the academic calendar year,” Poloma says. While many campuses shut down entirely over winter breaks, especially in December and January, Brown keeps some of its dorms and dining halls open. Similarly, the dorms at OSU stay open over campus breaks and students staying on campus have access to dining services, as well as the food pantry.

Other colleges and universities offer support for international students during campus closures. Some have developed host family programs for international students who are unable to go home over breaks. Brown’s Global Brown Center, an affinity center for international students under Campus Life, runs social programming over winter break. “You can imagine how deeply isolating it can be to be stuck on a dreary, cold, snowy campus around the holidays,” Poloma says.

Swarthmore College, which supports approximately 250 international students, offers housing options over winter break to international students unable to travel home because of distance or financial limitations. Students must submit an application for break housing by December 1, and international students who receive financial aid and apply for housing are also eligible to receive a $550 stipend to cover food or other costs.

Different offices on campus, such as the International Student Center and the Intercultural Center, sponsor additional meals for international students over breaks, according to Jennifer Marks-Gold, assistant dean and director of international student programs.

Just the Beginning

At Brown, the campuswide dialogue on basic needs insecurity has provided an opportunity to be thoughtful about how those recommendations can inform better support services for international students.

“This [conversation] has allowed us to really think more holistically about the intersection of not just food insecurity, but how it relates also to basic needs like access to housing during school closures,” says Poloma.

Not only do institutions have certain responsibilities in their capacity as hosts of international students on their campuses, they also play a role in helping students succeed by ensuring their physical, mental, and emotional well-being. This is a key part of delivering on their promise of providing an optimal learning environment for international students—and helping them meet their basic needs is foundational to their overall experience on campus and in the United States.  •


How to Help

Best practices for international offices looking to support international students experiencing food or housing insecurity:

  • Translate information about basic needs resources into multiple languages.
  • Inform students of campus policies regarding housing during breaks and any application deadlines.
  • Identify families in the community who are interested in hosting students during the holiday breaks.
  • Hold workshops and events in spaces such as food pantries to introduce students to the space and destigmatize asking for help and utilizing campus resources.
  • Invite representatives of campus food pantries and other resources to speak during international student orientation.
  • Hire international students to work at campus food pantries and basic needs resource centers.
  • Consider allowing international and undocumented students more meal swipes or vouchers because of their ineligibility for many state and federal benefits.
  • If campus dining services shut down during breaks, consider offering shuttles to local grocery stores for students staying on campus.
  • Foster campuswide conversations about basic needs insecurities.
  • Request that data on international students be disaggregated from campus surveys on basic needs insecurity to better gauge the population’s specific needs.
  • Determine whether the issues impacting a student are systemic or individual. Events like political crises, U.S. sanctions, or banking restrictions in certain countries are likely to impact multiple students.

About International Educator

International Educator is NAFSA’s flagship publication and has been published continually since 1990. As a record of the association and the field of international education, IE includes articles on a variety of topics, trends, and issues facing NAFSA members and their work. 

From in-depth features to interviews with thought leaders and columns tailored to NAFSA’s knowledge communities, IE provides must-read context and analysis to those working around the globe to advance international education and exchange.


NAFSA: Association of International Educators is the world's largest nonprofit association dedicated to international education and exchange. NAFSA's 10,000 members are located at more than 3,500 institutions worldwide, in over 150 countries.