It is often possible for grad students to feed themselves for free for at least a couple meals per week, should they want to defray costs in that area. Grad students who are food insecure also have university- or government-sponsored options to feed themselves for free.
University and Departmental Events
Universities offer free food frequently at events to incentivize attendance or to show attendees appreciation, such as at seminar series, workshops, and conferences. Opportunities will be most plentiful for first-year students and near the start of the school year. If you plan to attend such an event, the free food can often replace a meal on that day. If there are leftovers, ask if you can take a second box or plate for a meal later in the day. It is also possible to create meals from the leftover food from catered events that you didn’t attend, if it is made available to non-attendees. Being on the right email listserv or having the right personal connection can alert you to these opportunities before the free food is nabbed by other students.
Many restaurants offer free or partially free meals for promotional reasons, such as for your birthday or for signing up for a mailing list.
If you are food insecure, there may be an on-campus food pantry from which you can take food for free. Your city likely has food pantries available to the public as well.
- Food Pantries
- Food Pantries on the Rise at College Campuses as Tuitions Increase
- Colleges Launch Food Pantries to Help Low-Income Students
- Hunger Among College Students: Food Pantries Expand on Pittsburgh Campus
Some graduate students may be able to apply for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) if they meet the citizenship, work, and income qualifications. This program provides a certain amount of money each month into an account that you access with a specialized debit card. The money can be used toward eligible food in grocery stores and other retailers. Each state runs its own program, so you will have to check directly with your state to determine your eligibility.
Further reading: Can Graduate Students Get Food Stamps?
You can also score free food by dumpster diving, if you are adventurous and it is legal where you live. This form of dumpster diving is when you recover perfectly good food that has been discarded, generally by grocery stores and institutions. About 50% of food in America is wasted. Most people who dumpster dive do so as part of the larger food rescue movement, but a side benefit is that you can feed yourself partially or completely (freeganism) without paying any money. Of course, you have to have a certain constitution to employ this method, and it is advantageous to learn from an experienced mentor.
Further reading: The Food Waste Fiasco: You Have to See It to Believe It