Aug 10, 2022Food Insecurity in Collegiate Student-Athletes
With the Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) policy being passed by the NCAA last year, most of the conversation has been going toward athletes receiving fancy cars or new shoes. While this may be true for some that are raking in the big bucks, comments like these show that the general population, and maybe even some coaches and administrators, do not fully understand where most collegiate student-athletes sit financially. While it may seem like athletes being paid to play is just icing on the cake, for many this may be an opportunity to simply afford enough food to support their health and training load.
What people often fail to realize, is that most college student-athletes are not on full scholarships. Full scholarship means room, board, and tuition are paid for in full by their institution. Many student-athletes are on partial scholarships or no scholarships at all. When this occurs, the students are still expected to go to classes, study, practice, travel to competitions, attend team meetings, be present at study tables, tally community service hours, grocery shop, cook at least 3 balanced meals a day, sleep 8 hours a night, and maybe even clock some extra training. So, when in that schedule would those individuals be able to even think about having a part-time job? If the athlete does not have financial support from family, paired with extreme time commitments, this can lead to food insecurity.
What is Food Security? Food security measures individuals’ availability and access to food. According to the United Nations’ Committee on World Food Security, “food security means that all people, at all times, have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their food preferences and dietary needs for an active and healthy life” (Food Security, 2022). There are many levels of food security according to other expert resources, such as the USDA Economic Research Service and Feeding America, (Definitions of Food Security, 2022):
- High Food Security- Households did not have problems or concerns about consistently accessing adequate food.
- Marginal Food Security- Households did have issues or concerns about accessing adequate food, but the impact on the quality, variety, and quantity of their food was not significant.
- Low Food Security- Households were able to maintain the quantity of food purchased but did have to reduce the quality, diversity, and appeal of the food.
- Very Low Food Security- At times, one or more of the members in the household had eating patterns that were upset and/or lowered food consumption due to a lack of resources for food.
One of the common misconceptions about food insecurity is that the individual has nothing to eat whatsoever, and their pantry is barren. When you think of it in those terms, it narrows down the perceived prevalence. An athletic department providing one meal a day to the student might eliminate the idea that they have any students in this category. Viewing food insecurity through that lens can result in not recognizing the signs or believing there cannot be an issue. However, the level of low food security can include reduced diet quality, variety, and desirability. This can look like students having a lot of access to food while they are in-season with their sporting program, then off-season or during their training peak prior to the season they are skipping meals due to lack of availability, consuming only provided snacks, or eating the same inexpensive items daily (e.g. rice and beans or Ramen noodles).
While food insecurity can greatly affect youth athletes as well, this article is going to focus on highlighting studies looking at collegiate athletes specifically.
The prevalence of food insecurity in college athletes may be higher than you expect. According to the Hope Center Survey (2019), 39% of the student-athletes surveyed stated that at times they face food insecurity. In another report, food insecurity was noted for 39.6% of student-athletes (Mayeyx, 2020). In another study, the result was 29% of student-athletes that experienced some level of food insecurity/hunger (Misener, 2020).
In a study by Brown, et al. (2021), it was examined which subsets were at higher risk of food insecurity. The results suggested that Hispanic and Black student-athletes, those that did not have a meal plan, first-generation college students, recipients of the Pell Grant, and those that had experienced food insecurity prior to attending college were all at greater risk of food insecurity during their time as a collegiate student-athlete.
As food prices continue to rise at a more rapid rate than scholarship checks or the hourly pay rate, we can likely expect to see these numbers increase.
The negative effects of the lack of food access are fairly straightforward. In reviewing Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, access to food is a basic human need and is at the base of the pyramid. In Maslow’s theory, the rest of the needs cannot be achieved until the basic physiological needs are taken care of, therefore, those without food cannot hope to reach the levels of love and belonging, esteem, or self-actualization that we are all striving for and helping our athletes strive to achieve. Trauma often refers to an occurrence that disrupts the feeling of one’s safety and feeling of security. If someone consistently has times throughout the year in which they are uncertain of how they will access enough of their basic need which is food, this can create long-lasting traumatic thoughts and feelings around food that will likely permeate other aspects of their lives. Additionally, those who suffer from food insecurity are likely to have lower classroom GPAs (Mayeux, 2020).
As proven many times over, a continuous or semi-regular caloric deficit negatively impacts both performance and health. This is often referred to as Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S). This can occur from solely caloric deficits but can also be caused by a lack of certain food groups or macronutrients. This diagram from the IOC consensus statement on relative deficiency in sport (2014) shows the many consequences of RED-S. The diagram is often used to educate athletes on the dangers of not consuming enough to support training but is generally discussed as a choice that they are making, not a product of circumstance. Food insecurity has also been linked to an increase in disordered eating behaviors.
Food insecurity does not always mean being in a caloric deficit. It can mean binging when food is available. It could look like athletes shoving extra snacks in their lockers. It could look like eating at McDonald’s every day because $4.00 today looks better than $50.00 at the grocery store if they are uncertain of what other bills may pop up. The demands on athletes’ bodies are extremely high as is the pressure to perform. Yet, inconsistent meals, and meals of low nutritional value, reduces their bodies’ ability to recover and adapt to training at a high level. Another issue that compounds low food availability, is the increase in energy needs that athletes typically have due to their high training load and quantity of lean muscle. Put simply, they need more food than the general population.
In college athletics, many teams have GPS data they pour over every evening to determine training load. They give out Oura rings or Fitbits to measure sleep patterns and recovery. They highlight and promote services such as Headspace to help with mental health. And while all of these can be a part of reducing injuries and can have a positive influence on health and training for the athlete, the negative impacts of not having available the basic human need of food is damaging both psychologically and physiologically. The lack of availability leads to injuries and a decline in peak performance.
MITIGATIONS AND SOLUTIONS
Fortunately, there are many ways to assist students in getting the proper nutrition and feeling more stable in their current situation as student-athlete. It is critical to be understanding of the athlete’s situation and realistic with solutions. It is critical to remember to listen and support. If an athlete looks up to you and you dismiss receiving outside funding or aid, this can negatively impact the athlete’s outcome. They may feel ashamed to receive assistance or be determined not to do so. Additionally, be realistic about what you are asking from your athlete regarding their nutrition decisions. As someone who wants an athlete to reach their potential, it is easy to list off a perfect menu for them to consume daily or weekly. However, it is more helpful to discuss with the athlete what they feel they have money and time for and come up with nutritional compromises as needed. Another issue that occurs is recommending athletes to take supplements, which are typically much more expensive than food products. First assess if the athlete is getting enough food, quality food, and a variety of food before pressuring them into purchasing supplemental products.
Do not be afraid to ask your athletes if they are having issues with their access to food. According to Mayeux (2020), BMI was higher in the food insecure group. This bolsters the argument that you cannot tell if someone has food security issues by observing them. Consider adding this two-question validated Food Insecurity Questionnaire called the Hunger Vital SignTM to a Pre-Participation Exam or your beginning-of-the-year screening.
|Q1. We worried whether our food would run out before we got money to buy more.|
|Was that often, sometimes, or never true for your household in the past 12 months?|
|Q2. The food that we bought just didn’t last, and we didn’t have money to get more.|
|Was that often, sometimes, or never true for your household in the past 12 months?|
*Note: Response of “often true” or “sometimes true” to either or both questions is an indicator of Low Food Security. [Production Note: this is a cutline for the above graphic*]
It can be extremely helpful to know what local resources are available. Often on college campuses, there is a Human Health and Resources Department. Fostering a good relationship with that office can be prudent, so you can receive updates on different programming and resources. There are also food pantries in most communities, including specific on-campus ones as well. If your athletes are US citizens, applying for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) can be an enormous aid. USDA.gov can help you locate a local office, or links to apply online.
Speak with your administrator or budget advocates to request an increase in food budgets for your athletic department. When expecting our student-athletes to perform and to be healthy doing so, departments need to be able to support the students and their ability to achieve appropriate food access. Many schools have astronomically high recruiting budgets, and much lower budgets to support the nutritional health and well-being of the athletes that are already donning the school’s logo. Until athletic departments realize it is in their best interest financially to support these students using food to reduce injuries and prevent academic ineligibility, continue to campaign for increased nutrition budgets.
Know that many student-athletes want to perform their best, stay healthy, and reduce the stress that may come from affording quality food. Not every athlete has the know-how to use individual ingredients to form a meal or the time to put everything together. Consider helping them make better decisions at fast-food restaurants, to-go items at grocery stores, or frozen meals if that seems to be the best option for the individual. Here are some low-cost food items that can help student-athletes maintain a well-balanced diet and meet their caloric needs.
- Dried Grains (Rice, Barley, Pastas)
- Dried or Canned Beans
- Dried or Canned Legumes
- Nut Butters
- Canned Meats (Chicken, Tuna, Salmon)
- Canned Vegetables
- Canned Fruits
- Seasonal Fruits and Veggies
- Encourage freezing foods when they’re available for later times; this can particularly be good for meat on sale or bulk items
- On sale frozen meals, this is good for athletes that don’t know how to cook or do not feel they have the time
Written by a Collegiate and Professional Sports Dietitians Association Registered Dietitian (RD). To learn more about sports nutrition and CPSDA, go to www.sportsrd.org.