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5 Ways for College Students To Get Cheap Food

shironosov / Getty Images/iStockphoto

shironosov / Getty Images/iStockphoto

The image of the stereotypical broke college student is changing.

According to Feeding America, the teenager fresh out of high school who still depends on mom and dad now represents less than one-third of America’s college population. Today’s college students tend to be older adults who are financially independent, enrolled part-time, working full-time and often supporting kids of their own.

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Many of them are going back to school to improve their lot in life because they’re struggling financially — and struggling to afford food. According to the Hope Center, the pandemic only added fuel to the fire. Nearly four in 10 students in two-year schools and three in 10 students at four-year institutions now struggle with food insecurity.

Pursuing a degree is stressful enough, but when basic nutritional needs aren’t being met, students of all ages and backgrounds are less likely to complete their programs and achieve their goals. Are you a student who sometimes has trouble affording food?

Consider the following options.

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Visit Your Campus Food Pantry

According to Civil Eats, the exact number of college and university food banks is unknown, but most campuses now maintain them. In October 2021, Swipe Out Hunger, America’s leading on-campus anti-hunger initiative, acquired the College and University Food Bank Alliance (CUFBA) and its 800 member institutions. Swipe Out Hunger includes at least 140 colleges in more than 40 states in its own network. Separately, Feeding America operates 316 pantries and 124 mobile pantries on college campuses.

Whether your school is part of those networks or not, it’s likely that your college maintains a food pantry that offers free food to students struggling with nutritional insecurity. Some schools offer food bank services even to distance learners who study online.

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Locate Your Community Food Bank

If your campus doesn’t maintain a food pantry, there’s probably a community food bank nearby. The concept of the campus food pantry and the community food bank is the same, but in this case, free food is available to any member of the public, not just students.

Visit FeedingAmerica.org — Feeding America is the largest hunger-relief nonprofit in the country — to find a food bank near you and to get help applying to national food programs.

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Some Students Can Apply for SNAP

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, is America’s largest anti-hunger initiative. Generally, students attending college more than half-time are ineligible to receive benefits. There are some exceptions, though, including but not limited to students under 17 or over 50, students with disabilities, and students caring for young children.

For now, SNAP is mostly limited to students classified as half-time or less by their schools, but if it passes, the College Student Hunger Act of 2021 would expand access to certain populations of full-time students. The bill is currently working its way through Congress.

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Learn To Love Ugly Produce

According to Feeding America, more than 100 billion pounds of food — 130 billion meals — is wasted in the United States each year while tens of millions of Americans go hungry. The ugly produce movement was launched to cut down on that waste and save consumers money in the process.

Services like Misfits Market and Imperfect Foods deliver produce that doesn’t meet the cosmetic standards of America’s grocery stores. Think straight bananas and crooked carrots that look weird but are still perfectly safe, fresh and nutritious. Since most of this ugly produce was headed for a landfill, it often comes at a discount.

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Follow the Same Smart Shopping Guidelines That Apply Off-Campus

If you’re struggling to afford food as a college student, you should utilize the same strategies that organizations like the Cleveland Clinic recommend for all shoppers, including:

  • Avoid shopping while hungry and resist impulse purchases.
  • Create a meal plan with specific recipes, and build a shopping list based on the ingredients in those recipes. When you get to the store, stick to that list.
  • Browse circulars and opt for sale items whenever you can.
  • Buy generics and store brands whenever possible.
  • Comparison shop online between rival stores nearby before you head to the store.
  • Learn the most effective use of coupons and use apps like Rakuten, Coupons.com and Ibotta to save money and earn cash back.

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