Study exposes food insecurity among graduate students and postdocs

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Food insecurity on college campuses is an unexpected but increasingly common and urgent issue that requires public health intervention. Not much is known about its prevalence among graduates and post-doctoral trainees at private colleges and universities. A new study in JAMA Network Open reports on this phenomenon at three Harvard, Boston, Massachusetts, campuses.

Study: Food Insecurity Among Graduate Students and Postdoctoral Trainees. Image Credit: Steve Cukrov/
Study: Food Insecurity Among Graduate Students and Postdoctoral Trainees. Image Credit: Steve Cukrov/


Food insecurity refers to the “lack of access to enough food to attain a healthy, active life”. Young adults with food insecurity are less likely to achieve economic success or live healthy lives.

Earlier research showed that about 13% of Americans experienced food insecurity, with the figure being about 9% in Massachusetts. The current study focused on college campuses in this state since students experiencing food insecurity are less likely to graduate and more likely to continue to experience such insecurity later as well. In addition, such students tend to fare less well academically and may exhibit risky health behaviors, and are at risk of mental ill-health.

Despite this, there is little knowledge about food insecurity on private college campuses and among graduate students, and nothing is known about postdoctoral trainees. These segments of the student population may face additional demands, such as the inability to balance work with other aspects of life, financial instability, and overwork with high stress levels. Food insecurity is linked to poor diet quality as well.

The researchers sent out a survey asking about experiences of food insecurity to students in these two categories at three graduate schools offering health-related courses – one medicine, one dental medicine, and one public health. The survey was offered between April and June 2023.

The aim was to identify the occurrence of food insecurity, as defined by the US Household Food Security Survey Module. Low and very low food security were included under the label of food insecurity. The results were analyzed to help understand what factors are linked to the occurrence of food security in these student populations.

What did the study show?

The study was carried out as a cross-sectional survey among over 1,700 participants. Of these, nearly 1,300 were graduates, the rest being postdoc trainees. About 60% were female.

About 40% were Asian and 36% White. Overall, about 17% and 13% of graduate students and postdoctoral trainee researchers had some form of food insecurity during the study period. One in three of the respondents affirmed at least one indicator of food insecurity, a troubling finding since even slight food insecurity is linked to adverse health outcomes.


Graduate students from racial or ethnic minorities were at 5-6% higher odds of being food insecure, with a 10% increase in odds if they received fiscal aid. The odds rose steeply if they did not have permanent housing, at 53% higher odds of food insecurity.   

Postdoc trainees with food insecurity were more likely to be receiving aid via supplemental nutrition assistance programs, with the odds of food insecurity being raised by 60%. Housing instability was associated with 33% higher odds, and not owning a car with 11% increased odds of food insecurity.  

Importantly, these three campuses have already taken action to provide greater access to food via discounted cafeteria meals, Daily Dollar breakfast and lunch deals, and free meals at many campus gatherings. The sustainability and effectiveness of these initiatives need to be examined.

What are the implications?

The study is the first to look at the prevalence of food insecurity among future health professionals and health-related academic researchers at a private university in Boston, Massachusetts. The researchers found a significant percentage of graduate and postdoctoral students experience food insecurity while studying. Surprisingly, the prevalence exceeds that at both national and state levels.

Future research should extend the examination of food insecurity among graduate students and post-doctoral trainees to other campuses. Scientists need to focus on how food insecurity among graduate students and post-doctoral trainees translates into long-term health and academic outcomes. Since post-doctoral trainees are about to begin their independent research careers, experiencing food insecurity at this point could worsen already existing risk factors, such as the stigma associated with poverty or unfavorable social and racial or ethnic factors. These often act in combination to affect their self-efficacy.

These findings suggest that national and institutional interventions are needed to address the complex, structural factors related to food insecurity among graduate student and postdoctoral trainee populations.” Long-term interventions, such as increased living wage among senior students to reflect the costs of living in a particular location, are necessary.

Journal reference:
Dr. Liji Thomas

Written by

Dr. Liji Thomas

Dr. Liji Thomas is an OB-GYN, who graduated from the Government Medical College, University of Calicut, Kerala, in 2001. Liji practiced as a full-time consultant in obstetrics/gynecology in a private hospital for a few years following her graduation. She has counseled hundreds of patients facing issues from pregnancy-related problems and infertility, and has been in charge of over 2,000 deliveries, striving always to achieve a normal delivery rather than operative.


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