Is Eating Healthy on a Budget Possible?

In the face of tuition fees and a higher price of living, students find ways to deal with their food security issues.

The kettle screams. With the addition of boiling water, the forty cent cup of noodles  is hot and ready, the soup inside about as nutritious as its styrofoam packaging.

This scene likely feels familiar for the stereotypically broke college student. Finding a healthy meal on a budget can be unattainable–especially when the task comes on top of the already tumultuous stress of college life.

Haylee Montoya, a student at SF State, says that she goes grocery shopping every week and a half. “I can afford to go grocery shopping, but I only have a fifty dollar budget to work with,” she says.

Montoya, like many students, has difficulties eating on a budget, let alone staying healthy. Most people want foods that are quick, filling, cheap, and available. However, finding a meal that hits all those categories—and has sufficient nutritional value—is usually unfeasible.

In 2016, the University of California published a study about student food access. It found that nineteen percent of student respondents stated to have “very low” food security. That means that almost one-fifth of all US college students likely can’t afford healthy groceries each week.

JP Penner, the Associated Students Food Pantry student coordinator for the Food Pantry at SF State, helps students with their food security issues.

In an email, Penner said that while he can’t speak for the situation of individual students, “it’s safe to assume that the increasing costs of housing, education, health care, utilities, transportation etc. create circumstances where individuals are increasingly made to choose between spending money on food vs. spending money on these other needs.”

Associated Students currently funds the Food Pantry. Most of their food comes from the SF-Marin county food bank at no cost. The pantry offers food-insecure SF State students a week’s worth of food from a selection of fruits and vegetables. Penner says he hopes that in the future, the program will take advantage of food rescue organizations that donate perishable foods, as the pantry should have refrigeration by next semester.

Ly Trow (far right) restocks her bucket with more packages of Oatmeal. October 1st, 2018.

“As the current student coordinator of the pantry, it’s my goal to treat every student that uses our services with utmost sensitivity, understanding, and compassion because I would like them to leave the food pantry and food cupboard with feelings of empowerment and resilience to overcome all their life’s challenges,” Penner said via email.

Jokes about college students cuddling up to a bowl of Top Ramen day after day aren’t just jokes—for many, forty cents is all they can afford on a meal. There are many different ways for students to help themselves, from using programs offered by their schools to owning proper cooking equipment. But ultimately, food insecurity is a problem that needs to be properly addressed, by the school system and society at large. People can only go malnourished for so long.