Don’t let the trope fool you: “Living off of ramen and pizza” could be a sign of food insecurity

The Lantern
Cassie Fackler, Amy Patton, Sarah Holland and Lizzy Schnicke, clinical dietitians at the Wexner Medical Center, during a malnutrition pilot program. Credit: Courtesy of Lizzy Schnicke

The lack of consistent access to nutritional foods, more commonly known as food insecurity, is a reality most college students brush off as a myth.

According to the 2020 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, the food insecurity rate for college students is higher than for the general public, with nearly a quarter of undergraduate and 12 percent of graduate students affected. As both Malnutrition Awareness Week and September’s Hunger Action Month come to an end, Mike Hochron, the Mid-Ohio Food Collective’s vice president of communications, said it’s crucial to recognize that food insecurity can affect anyone, college students included.

“It’s everybody,” Hochron said. “It’s everyone that looks a lot like you and me, and it’s six doors down, whether in the dorm or on your street.”

Lizzy Schnicke, a registered dietitian at the Wexner Medical Center, said malnutrition — or specifically undernutrition, when one’s body doesn’t get the right balance of nutrients needed to properly function — is commonly spurred by food insecurity, and often goes unnoticed.

“Malnutrition can really sneak up on people,” Schnicke said. “It’s a continuum, like on a spectrum, so there’s normal nutrition and then there’s very severely malnourished, where you’ve lost all that weight, but there is that area in between where you can really intervene and help prevent it from getting worse.”

Hochron said college students often don’t recognize the prevalence of food insecurity on their own campuses. Even more, such students are often unaware of food insecurity in their own lives.

“There’s a lot of tropes about college students living off of ramen and pizza,” Hochron said. “And people kind of talk about like, ‘Oh, haha, that’s a funny thing,’ but the truth is, college is expensive. And many people, when you’re in school, your first focus is being a student — learning and bettering yourself. And that means that some are but many are not working full time and often are living off of loans and really on pretty limited resources.”

Though foods like ramen and pizza may aid in alleviating hunger, Hochron said there is a misconception that access to such foods makes someone “food secure.” Rather, the concept of food insecurity also considers nutrition.

“It’s not just about did you eat something today, it’s that you eat things that will support your health, that will support your learning and support your development,” Hochron said. “And that’s a huge risk for college students.”

Schnicke said college students often don’t consider the detrimental effects of this kind of food insecurity — which can include inflammatory bowel disease, obesity, diabetes and malnutrition — because of a narrow focus on short-term health.

“That’s probably the mindset I had when I was in college as well,” Schnicke said. “Where, ‘I’m only 20 years old, so this isn’t affecting me right now. I’m 20. My body can adapt and I’ll be okay.’”

For students struggling with food insecurity, there are nearby resources that can help. The Buckeye Food Alliance, located on west campus in Lincoln Tower, offers a food pantry to all Ohio State students. Committed to the mission of “No Buckeye Goes Hungry,” the organization provides free, nutritious food to students in need, according to the organization’s website .

Additionally, Hochron said the Mid-Ohio Food Collective, the largest hunger relief organization in central and eastern Ohio, offers a variety of resources aimed at bringing an end to both individual and statewide food insecurity.

“We have five overall assets, each of which have a part of a larger hole to address hunger and try to get upstream and make sure that we’re more holistically looking at ways to end hunger,” Hochron said. “Not just for the person who needs dinner on their plate today, but more of a community level.”

Hochron said he and the Mid-Ohio Food Collective are working to erase the stigma surrounding asking for help, and he encourages any student who feels they may be experiencing food insecurity to summon the courage to do so.

“There are so many people across our community who could benefit from our services or other community resources and just think ‘Oh, it’s not for them. I’m going to save it for someone who needs it more,’” Hochron said. “And quite frankly, if you’re in a position where you’re struggling to put food on the table, you can’t afford to meet your basic nutritional needs, that’s what we’re here for. We’re here for you.”

Hochron said Neighborhood Services Inc. — located at 1950 N. Fourth St. — is one of the Mid-Ohio Food Collective’s larger partners, offering Ohio State students a food bank within walking distance of campus.

“Let’s demystify the fact that people who are in post-secondary education are struggling with putting food on the table,” Hochron said. “It’s a very real thing, and we’re really proud of partnerships to help address those needs.”

More information about the Mid-Ohio Food Collective and its local partnerships can be found on its website .

This story was updated Sept. 22 at 1:06 p.m. to mention the Buckeye Food Alliance, an on-campus resource for students struggling with food insecurity.

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