Are estimates of food insecurity among college students accurate? Comparison of assessment protocols

Cassandra J. Nikolaus, Brenna Ellison, Sharon M. Nickols-Richardson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


A growing body of literature suggests that post-secondary students experience food insecurity (FI) at greater rates than the general population. However, these rates vary dramatically across institutions and studies. FI assessment methods commonly used in studies with college students have not been scrutinized for psychometric properties, and varying protocols may influence resulting FI prevalence estimates. The objective of this study was to assess the performance of standard food security assessment protocols and to evaluate their agreement as well as the relative accuracy of these protocols in identifying student FI. A randomized sample of 4,000 undergraduate students were invited to participate in an online survey (Qualtrics, LLC, Provo, Utah, USA) that evaluated sociodemographic characteristics and FI with the 2-item food sufficiency screener and the 10-item USDA Adult Food Security Survey Module (FSSM; containing the abbreviated 6-item module). Four hundred sixty-two eligible responses were included in the final sample. The psychometric analysis revealed inconsistencies in college student response patterns on the FSSM when compared to national evaluations. Agreement between FI protocols was generally high (>90%) but was lessened when compared with a protocol that incorporated the 2-item screener. The 10-item FSSM with the 2-item screener had the best model fit (McFadden’s R2 = 0.15 and Bayesian Information Criterion = -2049.72) and emerged as the tool providing the greatest relative accuracy for identifying students with FI. Though the 10-item FSSM and 2-item screener yields the most accuracy in this sample, it is unknown why students respond to FSSM items differently than the general population. Further qualitative and quantitative evaluations are needed to determine which assessment protocol is the most valid and reliable for use in accurately identifying FI in post-secondary students across the U.S.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere0215161
JournalPloS one
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2019

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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