“Nearly half our college students are going hungry,” presidential candidate Bernie Sanders proclaimed on Saturday. Sanders’ tweet went viral, spurring more than 20,000 retweets and likes. Starving college students are a new rallying cry for social justice warriors, spurring demands for new federal handouts and maybe even a college student meal program modeled after school lunches.
Some colleges are hyping hungry students to spur donations for Giving Tuesday:
- Johnson County Community College in Kansas publicized a “Giving Tuesday” logo announcing: “$7 feed a hungry college student for one day. $49 feed one for one week.” Was this pitch inspired by the famous 1987 television fundraising ad with Sally Struthers on how 70 cents a day van feed a hungry Ethiopian child? The college neglected to buttress its appeal with photos of emaciated Kansas students.
- The Giving Tuesday pitch for Manor College in suburban Philadelphia packs a double whammy, promising to help both hungry students and the campus Bird Feed program.
- Portland Community College is seeking to raise $50,000 on Giving Tuesday for its food pantries, asserting that “two of three Portland Community College students have faced food insecurity.”
In reality, the College Hunger Hoax is largely the result of a bait-and-switch by social scientists. Rather than seeking to measure actual hunger, questionnaires ask about the vaporous topic of “food security.” Surveys rely on 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. And if someone desired to consume better quality or more expensive cuisine (attention Whole Foods shoppers), they can join the ranks of the “food insecure.”
Food security surveys are routinely contorted in media reports as gauges of college students’ hunger, if not starvation. Typical misreporting shined in a New York Times headline this past May: “Tuition or Dinner? Nearly Half of College Students Surveyed in a New Report Are Going Hungry.”
But even with the skewed definition of the problem, the numbers of suffering students defy common sense. Based on a thorough Census Bureau national survey, the Agriculture Department reported last September that 5.9% of American households were “food insecure” within the past 30 days. The most widely quoted annual report on the plight of college students comes from the zealots at the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice. According to their most recent report this past April, 45% of college students were food insecure in the prior 30 days.
The Hope Center report gravely notes that 40% of students “cut the size of meals” due to cash shortages. This is portrayed as an unmitigated evil, though obesity is a far greater problem for college students than hunger. The percentage of students who were overweight or obese rose from 23% to 41% during their four years in college, according to a 2017 Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior report. A study published in July in Health Education Journal reported that American “undergraduate students gain more weight in the first year in college than at any other point in their lives.” 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.
There are plenty of individual students who miss meals and struggle financially but this has been the plight of some college students going back centuries. Many colleges would be compassionate to offer lower-price meal plans in lieu of the five-star buffets they increasingly serve. Many students are justifiably perturbed at soaring tuition costs for diplomas of shaky value. But they were not conscripted into higher education.
Perhaps the biggest danger from the College Hunger Hoax is that it will justify new political takeovers of another swath of American life. Some advocates are calling for “the federal government to provide free or reduced-cost meals at colleges, as is already done in primary and secondary schools.” Should we presume that attending college classes inflicts the equivalent of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, making students unable to care for themselves?
Someone might reach that conclusion based on the righteous and rapturous responses of many college students to Bernie Sanders’ tweet. The sense of entitlement can be disabling — or at least deter some students from taking a job to cover their cost of living. But no one has explained why becoming a gender studies major magically entitles a person to be fed by other Americans’ tax dollars.
James Bovard is the author of “Attention Deficit Democracy,” “The Bush Betrayal,” “Terrorism and Tyranny,” and other books. Bovard is on the USA Today Board of Contributors. He is on Twitter at @jimbovard. His website is at www.jimbovard.com
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