7 Ways for Broke College Students to Afford Food

From tight budgets to campus hunger, college students can struggle to afford food. You have options besides ramen. Check out these 7 ways to afford food.

college students afford food

What happens when the cost of college competes with everyday expenses? 

Broke college students are increasingly finding it difficult to afford food. In some cases, students face financial juggling to make ends meet. But other situations can be more extreme, with college students being unsure where their next meal is coming from. 

The statistics are shocking. About 45 percent of college students have experienced food insecurity within a one-month timeframe. By definition, that means having limited or uncertain access to nutritious food. For example, students may be skipping meals because they’re low on cash. 

The study from Temple University went further to understand student hunger. Among those students who reported having food or housing insecurity, two-thirds are also employed. Even though they’re earning money, it’s still not enough for the essentials. 

“If I’m sending my kid to college, I want more than a food pantry. I want to know that they’re addressing high food prices on campus and taking steps to ensure no student goes hungry,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, professor at Temple and the founder of the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice.

When faced with the high cost of tuition, textbooks and student fees, even students on a moderate budget can find themselves struggling. The additional financial burden of student loans can further increase the true cost of higher education. 

What can students do when they can’t afford to eat? Here are the seven best ways for broke college students to afford food. 

1. DIY When You Can

On average, you’ll spend less money on food when you make it yourself. The next best option is to buy prepackaged foods, meal kits or market prepared meals. The most expensive option is to eat out. 

Priceonomics compared the costs of 86 popular meals, and here are the average cost per serving:

  • Home Cooking: $4.31
  • Meal Kit: $12.53
  • Restaurant: $20.37

Notably, the researchers didn’t use the savvy that broke college students use when seeking out cheap meals. 

In the experiment, the ingredients for home-cooked meals were purchased at Whole Foods, which isn’t known for its low prices. The prices for restaurant meals were sourced from national chains like Applebee’s, Cheesecake Factory, Chili’s and P.F. Chang. Those prices would be higher than college favorites like a Chipotle burrito. 

Despite the differences between how college students shop, the ratio of costs still applies. Therefore, college students should expect to spend about five times more to eat out than to cook their own meals. Preparing your own food can help you dramatically reduce your total food costs. 

2. Scout Out Cheap Groceries

Another way for students to make the most of their food budget is to opt for cheap groceries. 

For example, bulk oatmeal, rice, grains, beans, and pasta are cheap staples. Frozen veggies are a fast and cheap source of nutrition, easily transforming into a stir fry. Choose high-value fresh produce like bananas and lettuce. Frozen fruit and peanut butter and quickly turn into a healthy smoothie.

For full-time students who are struggling to afford to eat, consider both the direct cost of the groceries and the time it takes to prepare them. Rather than labor-intensive groceries, you’ll get the most bang for your buck by choosing food that can cook while you’re doing homework. 

3. Deals, Sales and Cash Back

Take advantage of sales. For food items you know you’ll eat, buy in bulk to get good prices. You can stock up on college classics like ramen soup, Easy Mac and coffee. 

You can also get good deals by shopping at discount stores like Aldi, which is the cheaper cousin of Trader Joe’s. These stores commonly have great deals on gluten-free products and other specialty goods. 

You can also earn cashback on groceries by using sItes like Rakuten (formerly Ebates). Current deals include Walmart, Albertsons, Sam’s Club and more

4. Make the Most of Buffet Dining Hall

All-you-can-eat dining halls are not a great deal when you want a quick bite or a small meal. However, it is possible to use buffet dining halls to have a big, hearty meal. You just have to play your cards right so you go to the dining hall on wings night rather than the day they’re serving mystery meatloaf.

You may also be able to get a few meals at the dining hall from friends who have large meal plans. At the end of the semester, some schools have use-it-or-lose-it policies. For students who have lots of meals to use at the end of the semester, it’s better to swipe someone through than to pay for uneaten meals. 

There are even organized programs to help college students distribute unused meal credits or swipes. Swipe Out Hunger is a non-profit student-driven organization that collects unused meal swipes at the dining hall. They’re already at 80 college campuses. 

Among students who have received free swipes, the non-profit reports 70 percent have less stress about where they would get their next meal, and more than 50 percent reported higher class attendance.

5. Access Resources

Food assistance can be more complicated for students. You could be in a new city and don’t know where in the community you can go to get help. Plus, in some states, there can be additional regulations for getting government assistance, and it’s not always clear if your work-study hours meet the work requirements.

On-campus social workers are valuable resources to help address student hunger. Unlike financial aid officers who specifically focus on the cost of tuition, social workers can help you to understand available resources and navigate solutions like emergency SNAP benefits (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).  

Currently, about 30 percent of college students experiencing food insecurity are using food stamps. Still, many don’t use the safety net. More than half of low-income college students don’t participate in the food stamp program even though they qualify for it.

There may even be an on-campus food pantry you can access right away. Plus you can find a local food bank by searching on Feeding America.

6. Score Free Food

Many on-campus events offer free food to entice people to show up. By stopping by these student events, you can get free pizza, snacks or ice cream. 

You can also score free food by visiting local shops that make fresh food daily. For example, bakeries or bagel shops may be giving away free food when they’re closing up for the day.

7. Find a Gig to Cover Food Costs

There are a few easy gigs that can cover your food costs. 

One option is to become a resident advisor. Typically, these roles include room and board. That means your housing and meals will be covered in exchange for your supervisory role in the dorms. 

Another popular option is to become a paid notetaker for OneClass. The app pays students to go to class, and students can earn $470 per course for uploading their lecture notes. One student attending the University of California-Davis told Reader’s Digest that she made $1,500 in less than a year. 

In addition to the cash you earn, paid note-takers find that when their job is tied to their classwork, their grades improve. The majority of OneClass note-takers report seeing a significant GPA improvement, and some note-takers improve by as much as three grade points.

Learn more about how OneClass is helping students succeed in college.

Image attribution: gpointstudio – stock.adobe.com

Author: OneClass Blog

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