College students expect to work hard to earn a degree. What they don’t expect is how hard they will have to struggle to get enough to eat.

While the general rate of food insecurity in the U.S. is estimated to be 11.8 percent (14.4 percent in Maine), the Wisconsin HOPE Lab found that 36 percent of four-year students and 42 percent of two-year students are food insecure.

Like many other Mainers with low-wage jobs, students are one unexpected expense away from having no money for food or rent.

College students balance part-time and often full-time jobs and internships with academics, but still can’t keep pace with escalating costs. While the cost of higher education is at an all-time high, and non-tuition expenses including books, housing, transportation, food and utilities continue to grow, public financial aid has not kept pace and safety net programs have been shrinking. In the 1970s, a Pell Grant covered roughly 80 percent of student education expenses at a typical public university; now it covers only 28 percent of student education expenses in the University of Maine System and across the U.S.

Many college students who are struggling to escape poverty and pursue their career aspirations also face significant barriers to getting help accessing food, including stigma and lack of information about available assistance, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. According to HOPE Lab, only 26 percent of eligible food-insecure students at community colleges and 12 percent at universities receive SNAP benefits.

Without adequate financial aid and safety net programs, many students who come to college seeking to escape generational poverty end up standing in line at campus food pantries.

One University of Southern Maine senior studying full time and working 40 hours a week still couldn’t make ends meet. Although an academic supervisor encouraged her to look into SNAP, because she was embarrassed she hesitated, which resulted in waiting three more months before receiving food assistance. Many other college students don’t qualify for SNAP because low-income people lose food assistance after only three months if they can’t document 20 hours of work per week.

College food insecurity has tragic implications for all of us.

For students, food insecurity is linked with poor nutrition, health and academic outcomes. Food-insecure college students are more likely to skip meals or eat food with less nutritional value; experience stress, poor mental health, depression, fatigue and lack of energy; and have a lower GPA because of difficulty concentrating and studying.

For Maine communities, college food insecurity is not just about compromising personal academic achievement but is also an economic development issue. Business owners and policy experts recognize the importance of labor force growth, and the quality and skills of the workforce are critical for sustaining a prosperous economic future. When students or workers don’t have enough to eat, it compromises their learning and performance.

But state and federal governments have been slow to recognize the significance of college food insecurity – the first federal briefing on college food insecurity took place last December.

In addition to emergency food sources for students, we also need long-term solutions.

It can begin with universities and community colleges implementing universal screening for food insecurity to identify students who are food insecure. Those institutions can also establish a resource hub to help students apply for SNAP and other public benefits.

The USM food studies program recently hosted the 2019 Universities Fighting World Hunger Summit, bringing leading researchers and practitioners from across to the country to talk about college hunger; and the university and Preble Street are working together to raise awareness and advance solutions to this college hunger crisis.

It is time to make sure that all students in Maine can fill their stomachs and fuel their brains. For our state’s future, we can’t afford not to solve this problem.