Wednesday, March 11, 2020

By Elianna Novitch

As food and housing insecurity continues to increase among college students, researchers like Katharine Broton are looking for solutions to help address these growing concerns.

Broton, assistant professor in the University of Iowa College of Education’s Educational Policy and Leadership Studies Department, along with colleagues Sara Goldrick-Rab at Temple University and Milad Mohebali, University of Iowa graduate student, are exploring the impact of meal vouchers on students’ academic success and well-being.

“This is an exciting development for the field and provides rigorous empirical evidence for colleges seeking ways to address food insecurity and hunger on campus,” Broton says.

The report, “Fueling success: An experimental evaluation of a community college meal voucher program,” was released by The Hope Center, the nation’s action research center working to help all students succeed.

The report’s findings were based on the use of meal vouchers at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, Massachusetts. The meal voucher program aimed to deliver up to $700 per year in support for on-campus meals to students at risk of food insecurity. The vast majority of students offered the program used it, and spent about half what they were allocated.

“The main reasons students didn’t use more is that they were not on-campus enough, and they were rationing the dollars, afraid they would run out,” Broton says. “Even so, compared to a control group, students offered the vouchers attempted and completed more credits that academic year.”

The meal voucher program boosted credit attainment, and there was some indication it may also contribute to higher retention and completion rates. Overall, Broton and her colleagues found that the program induced students to eat on campus more often, which likely helped them concentrate on their studies.

“There also appear to be improvements in their persistence rate from fall to spring, reductions in food insecurity, and reductions in stress and anxiety,” Broton says. “These results are promising and the program should be replicated, scaled, and re-evaluated.”

Broton and her colleagues’ research into meal vouchers programs is a part of a larger research project that is partnering with community colleges and local agencies in Boston, Houston and Tacoma to evaluate food and housing supports for community college students in need. The project is supported by a $550,000 grant from The Kresge Foundation, of which $66,165 supports the work Broton does at the University of Iowa. Goldrick-Rab is the principal investigator while Broton serves as co-principal investigator.

Broton and her colleagues’ hope that their research on meal voucher programs can be used by other institutions interested in establishing or improving a meal voucher or swipe initiative on campus.

Broton and her colleagues will continue to follow the students in this study to examine the longer-term impacts of the program on student achievement and attainment. They will also continue to seek out partnerships with colleges and universities working to alleviate basic needs insecurity on college campuses.

To learn more about the most promising practices in the field, check out their book, “Food Insecurity on Campus: Action and Intervention.”