Trellis Company’s latest research, ‘Studying on Empty: A Qualitative Study of Low Food Security Among College Students,’ followed 72 college students for nine months to monitor the effects of low food security and the influence food challenges have on academic performance

Round Rock, TX – Most college students are committed to their education and willing to make sacrifices to obtain a degree. But when basic needs, like food security, are not being met, academic performance can slip as students try to balance school, work, and family obligations under persistent stress.

Trellis Company’s latest report, Studying on Empty: A Qualitative Study of Low Food Security Among College Students, documents and explores the lived experiences of students with low food security, how students cope with its challenges, and how these strategies influence academic performance. The report reveals common drivers of food insecurity at the collegiate level and also provides promising practices for supporting students with low food security.

This is the first report from the Trellis Financial Security Study, in which Trellis followed 72 current students for nine months (January 2017 to October 2017) capturing the shifting nature of food security in a college setting. This qualitative study describes the dynamics that can affect students’ levels of food security (i.e., high/marginal, low, and very low), as well as the mechanisms through which food insecurity can harm students’ academic standards and career goals. In this report, low food security is contrasted with the even more debilitating very low food security level.

“Our ability to interact with the same students over an extended period of time enabled us to discover that food security among college students is typically fluid, which provides an additional layer of understanding,” said Jeff Webster, Trellis’ Director of Research. “Students also shared that their academic performance mirrored their level of food security. The student voices captured in this study speak to the power of unexpected events and the difficult prioritizations students make each day that affect their food security.”

“This ambitious qualitative study provides critical insights, nuance, and real student stories to the accumulating quantitative data and findings on college student food security. This report ought to be read by anyone interested in meeting students’ needs and improving student success. I commend Trellis for this excellent and important study.” David Tandberg, Vice President of Policy Research and Strategic Initiatives at State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO).

Key findings

Studying on Empty discovered the following:

  • While low food security often stems from a scarcity of money, there are other factors like insufficient time, persistent stress, and lack of information that can exacerbate low food security.
  • Students who struggle with food security often face hard choices in how to allocate their scarce time and often are forced to neglect academic work in order to obtain more steady access to food.
  • Food security is not static, but fluid, subject to catalysts that improve and degrade security.
  • Food security tends to decline when students face employment disruptions, loss of financial aid, family crises, and unexpected costs such as car repairs, rent increases, spike in utility costs, and changes in daycare arrangements.
  • Food security often improves when students find living wage jobs with easy commutes, gain access to financial aid or public benefit programs, receive money or living accommodations from family or romantic partners, and obtain low-price textbooks.
  • When students are able to become food secure, they often report increased sleep, reduced stress, and higher levels of energy.

“The students’ stories tell how sacrifice, persistence, personal growth, empathetic administrators, beneficial programs, and the vagaries of chance affected their ability to stay in school,” said Webster. “These students worked hard and committed themselves to school. They made daily sacrifices to achieve their educational goals, yet they worried about being able to meet their basic needs. Most students highly valued their academics, but difficulties with meeting basic needs endangered their ability to be successful in their academic pursuits.”

About the study

Trellis conducted 499 interviews which produced 291 hours of recordings documenting how student circumstances changed over a nine-month period, including the previously under-researched summer period. Topics discussed with students included: academic goals; degree plans; personal, financial, and academic challenges; class attendance; grades; the effects of higher education on personal finances; perceptions of student loans/student loan debt; housing; food security; interactions with school agents; and strategies for success.

This report is the first in a series. Each report will present an in-depth look into student finances and their relation to academic success, through conversations directly with students.

Accessing the report

To download a PDF of the full report, Studying on Empty: A Qualitative Study of Low Food Security Among College Students, visit


Trellis Company is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) corporation with the dual mission of helping student borrowers successfully repay their education loans and promoting access and success in higher education.

We have a nearly 40-year successful track record of delivering positive outcomes for students and institutions. Our strong philanthropic heritage of giving through grants to colleges, universities, and research groups remains focused on improving student outcomes, especially to assist underserved students and families, and to help institutions navigate the changing landscape of higher education.


“While much of the current conversation about the cost of college focuses on tuition, non-tuition expenses like food, housing, books, and transportation can make the difference between a student’s successful completion and being forced to stop out. Students of limited means often make significant sacrifices – including going hungry – to afford the postsecondary education they know can set them on a path toward economic mobility and stability. Policymakers at the federal, state, and institutional levels must recognize these immense sacrifices and invest in need-based financial aid that covers the full cost of college to make higher education truly affordable.” Michelle Asha Cooper, President, Institute for Higher Education Policy

“Minimizing the obstacles hindering student success is a high priority for Texas community colleges. This study will help institutions identify key areas where attention is critical, allowing them to intervene effectively by providing students with the appropriate resources to reach their academic goals.” Jacob Fraire, President and CEO of the Texas Association of Community Colleges (TACC)

“This report adds to the mounting evidence that college student hunger is a serious problem in the United States. Food insecurity and hunger undermine college students’ health, focus, and ability to complete their education. As this report finds, too many college students lack ready access to SNAP benefits.” Ellen Vollinger, SNAP Director for the Food Research & Action Center

“Through thoughtful qualitative analysis, this food insecurity research by Trellis transitions many of our institutions into actionable approaches to reducing risk factors faced by college students. The strategies presented involve self-efficacy, advising, building resources and addressing systemic change; their implementation will bolster caring communities on campuses while empowering students to make healthy decisions related to building financial and time management skills necessary in – and after – college.” Rissa McGuire, Executive Director of the Texas Council of Public University Presidents and Chancellors

“Thank you Trellis for highlighting the financial vulnerability of today’s college students. Students are the keys to our communities thriving. And when we help them overcome barriers including food and housing insecurities, we are ensuring the economic viability of our communities.” Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart, President of Amarillo College

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