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  • Deconstructing Assumptions About College Students With Basic Needs Insecurity:Insights From a Meal Voucher Program
  • Katharine M. Broton (bio), Milad Mohebali (bio), and Sara Goldrick-Rab (bio)

Basic needs insecurity, including insufficient or inadequate food, housing, and other personal necessities, is a common problem on college campuses, especially at community colleges (Baker-Smith et al., 2020; Broton & Goldrick-Rab, 2018), and an increasing number of higher education institutions are attempting to ameliorate this issue (Broton & Cady, 2020). A 2016 survey indicated that vouchers, which provide students with meals, transportation, books, among other necessities, are a common response to this problem, with 59% of public two-year colleges reporting a voucher program on campus (Kruger et al., 2016). Institutions often rely on donations to fund voucher programs and on student affairs professionals to administer them (Kruger et al., 2016).

While practitioners have long cared for students who struggled to get enough to eat (Saunders & Wilson, 2016), attending to students' basic needs in institutionalized ways is a rather recent phenomenon. Without an established professional code of ethics, administrators, student services practitioners, and faculty draw from institutional logics and cultural schemas to inform their practice (Broton, Miller, & Goldrick-Rab, 2020; Saunders & Wilson, 2016). Thus, uncritical approaches to these practices can reproduce pervasive racist, sexist, and classist tropes of blaming the poor for their life circumstances, reproducing paternalistic and surveillance (il)logics, and influencing how individuals approach helping students in need (Katz, 2013). This issue is specifically pertinent to voucher programs that distribute cash-like resources and, most important, in the context of community colleges that serve a larger share of students from marginalized groups.

Given high levels of student need and institutional fiscal limitations and accountability structures, frontline professionals generally require students to submit application forms proving their "deservingness" for vouchers (Kruger et al., 2016). Detailing the intimate intricacies of one's poverty is dehumanizing and stems from cultures of welfare where the deserving poor, like white working-class families, are distinguished through bureaucratic structures from undeserving poor, often portrayed in racist and sexist stereotypes (e.g., "welfare queens"; Katz, 2013). Moreover, voucher programs tend to operate via word of mouth for fear that institutions will be overrun with requests, leaving no resources for a more deserving student who may seek help later (Broton, Miller, & Goldrick-Rab, 2020). Indeed, only 16% of college campuses reported using data proactively to identify and serve students in need (Kruger et al., 2016). [End Page 229]

In this paper, we draw from a larger mixed-method study to examine how students at high risk of food insecurity used a meal voucher program that offered them money via a debit card to buy food from the college cafeteria or café. We asked, when offered the meal voucher debit card, how students used the resource and which factors were associated with its use? Contrary to concerns that poor students lack financial discipline and will quickly spend down any available resources, students spent just over half of the dollars allocated to them. We found that time poverty and feelings of financial scarcity affected students' debit card usage patterns, and we offer implications for improving practice based on those findings.


This research was conducted in partnership with Bunker Hill Community College (BHCC), one of the largest and most diverse community colleges in Massachusetts. Located in the Greater Boston area, which has higher than state and national average rates of household food insecurity, the net price of attendance at BHCC was more than $7,000 per year (Broton, Mohebali, & Goldrick-Rab, 2020). We partnered with BHCC because they previously ran a promising pilot voucher program that provided students with paper meal tickets. BHCC created the MVP program eligibility criteria, which included the following: domestic students enrolled in their first semester at BHCC in Fall 2017 who were aged 18 or older, taking at least one credit-bearing course at the Charlestown campus (where the cafeteria is located), and who either indicated that they had experienced food insecurity on a pre-treatment college survey or had an expected family contribution of $0 and an adjusted gross income less than or equal to $24,000, according to administrative records. BHCC...