Between tuition and textbooks, rent payments and transit fares, there's only so much money that a poor university student living on bank loans and scholarships is able to put towards food. Even at schools with free tuition and labsnote books still cost something and so do living spaces and heat as well as food. The Starving Student is a staple of higher education settings, where even those lucky enough to have financial support from their parents will still be thinking of money in values of mac and cheese boxes or instant noodles.
The starving student will often have a rigid budget and spend their entire academic career just scraping by for necessities like clothing and food (but not, of course, for alcohol, or coffee). Universities do offer free food at special events, finals stress relief weeks, and conferences (mainly to lure in attendance) but students frequently must RSVP for that event in advance and there's only food while supplies last. Most of the time, at universities that still even have cafeterias, students must pay to eat there.
This trope is often Truth in Television, as college loans are very expensive (growing more so in many places) and keep many students in debt for decades. This results in years of struggling to get by just to pay off their education, which has a higher priority than buying food. In some places students have to study so much and so hard they simply don't have time to work, and when their families aren't well-off either, this trope comes into play. In fiction, it is generally played for comedy, especially when the character is also a Big Eater, but it can be milked for drama at the drop of a hat.
This trope is ubiquitous to the American student due to the extremely skyrocketed (and still rising) prices of education as well as the now virtually non-existent guarantee of immediate payback after graduation in the form of a promising career.
- This is very strongly implied and Played for Laughs in a Turbo Tax commercial. In it, yes or no questions appear on the screen along with a cursor. A scene plays that tells the viewer the answer before it is clicked. The question was "Did you pay off your student loans?" we cut to a scene of a woman eyeing her surroundings at a fancy party before sneaking over to the food table and loading her purse with shrimp. The cursor clicks "yes."
- Cafe Kichijoji De has Toku, the college student part-timer who is so poor that he doesn't have enough money to store food at his run-down apartment. In one chapter, a couple of elementary school kids manage to recruit him as their underling by giving him some pork bun and a whole head of lettuce.
- In Fruits Basket, main character Tohru Honda starts out as this. After her mother died, she went to live with her grandfather, but when her grandfather's house goes through renovations she decides to live by herself in a tent while taking up a job as a janitor for an office building. She later moves in with Shigure, Yuki and Kyo Sohma, though she still insists on working.
- In Love Hina, a recurring subplot is Keitaro looking for a job to pay for his studies. Made worse in that he routinely loses money to the Pretty Freeloaders' hijinks.
- In Maison Ikkoku, Godai works to pay for his studies, but he never has money for anything. And when he has some money, he spends it on presents for Kyoko.
- The Quintessential Quintuplets: In the first chapter, Fuutarou's Establishing Character Moment has him order a barbecue beef menu, holding back the beef itself in his school cafeteria, while mentally congratulating himself for saving money that way. Shortly after we see that his family is very poor, and as a result he's not very picky about what he eats so long as it is edible.
- Inverted in The Peace Not Promised, where the teenage Severus is half-starved at home and uses his fully catered time at Hogwarts to recover. Even then, though, he has very simple tastes, content to live on porridge and black tea and brown bread, until his engagement to Lily motivates him to work on his physique so as to be less self conscious on their wedding night.
- The Spider-Man Trilogy movies reflect this. Particularly the second movie which has Peter Parker struggling through college without money, his superhero identity compounding his hardships.
- Such a student is the defendant in a Judge Ooka case; he is sued by a restaurant owner because he mentioned to a friend that he used the delicious smells of the restaurant to give imaginary flavor to the one bowl of rice he could have a day. Judge Ooka, being wise, declared that the sound of money was the correct payment for the smell of food.
- A joke has a student go to a doctor, complaining constipation. The doctor examines him and writes a prescription: "Eat something."
- A joke has a student collapse on a street. A crowd immediately assembles and some samaritan starts shouting for water. A student raises his head and says weakly: "And bread "
- An old and popular saying among German students goes as follows: "Eltern! Wollt ihr mich noch retten, schickt mir Geld und Zigaretten."note
- A Russian joke tells of a student entering a University cafeteria and ordering two sausages. "What a wastrel!" gasps the audience. "And eight forks!" continues the student.
- Kvothe's struggle to come up with his tuition money drives a large part of the plot of The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man's Fear.
- Marius from Les Misérables becomes a poor starving student after he's kicked out by his grandfather. Many of the other students help him out at various points, especially Courfeyrac who shares a flat with him for a while. Considering the poverty many of the other characters face, Marius's plight doesn't seem too bad by comparison.
- Adam Lewis from TimeRiders, even though he's already struggling, he borrows thousands from his parents to go abroad, deciding he doesn't care if he'll be broke for the rest of his student life.
- While they aren't students anymore, one episode of Scrubs notes that JD, Turk and the other interns (apart from Elliot, whose parents pay for everything) have to steal hospital supplies (e.g. toilet paper, pudding, no big-ticket items or drugs) in order to eat while making payments on student loans.
- In Three's Company, this is why Jack moves in with the girls. He's a starving cooking school student. Good cooking schools can be ridiculously expensive. Though students are usually able to eat their projects afterwards.
- Implied with Malcolm in Malcolm in the Middle, who is last seen in the finale quite cheerfully slaving as a campus janitor in between attending class — at Harvard. One of the plotlines of the episode had involved the family worrying that they wouldn't be able to afford his tuition and the choice between getting an education and going on to do great things, or taking a corporate job offer with a six-figure salary.
- The boys in The Young Ones live in near-squalor in a shared house while attending Scumbag College.
- In Broken Sword, Nico mentions that she had to drop out of university because of this trope (she couldn't afford art supplies, although she was able to eat potatoes when she was doing printing with them).
- Marie Curie while attending the Sorbonne — which was actually a mostly free university, as it is today. She really did live in a garret in the Latin Quarter, because it was close to the school and she could walk there, saving on bus fare. She managed to survive on pennies and often forgot to eat. She passed out at least once at school (between classes, not during class as in the movie). Her doctor told her to move in with her sister and brother-in-law, both doctors, but they lived too far away from the school and were both party animals in their off hours, making it difficult to concentrate.
- The New England Journal of Medicine described, in the late 1990s, several cases of scurvy (Vitamin C deficiency) seen in students who had chosen a severely restricted diet - consisting almost entirely of instant noodles - because of cost.
- Due to the 2008 economic recession, and still today, many American universities have had to open food banks and pantries to feed their low-income students, some of whom were also homeless or unable to pay the most basic of bills. It is no longer unusual to see or hear about college students going for days without a single meal.
- At the primary and secondary levels in the US, many schools run free lunch programs for low-income students whose families can't afford to feed their kids. Free school lunch programs originated precisely because President Harry S. Truman was so disgusted by the high rate of military enlistees being rejected as a result of medical ailments that were caused by childhood malnutrition, so when someone who is a big fan of military spending speaks disparagingly about school lunches being a waste of the taxpayer's money? The free school lunch program was established in the interest of national security.
- Some Title I schools are lucky enough to be adopted by charities that provide free breakfasts and lunches on days the schools are closed. Without these programs many of the students would go hungry on weekends and school holidays. http://lunchesoflove.net/about-us/ is an example.
- One of the main functions of the Black Panthers was to provide free hot meals for poverty-stricken black schoolchildren who didn't have any.
- This trope is the reason that some places have laws stating that college students (at least those living on-campus) have to buy a meal plan from the school (that is built into their financial aid/tuition package, and must be priced affordably). This way, they are at least assured of getting basic meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner) in the dining hall. Unfortunately, this simply drives up the cost of education even higher, meaning even if students are no longer hungry thanks to the policies, they now have to deal with a few thousand more in student loans after they graduate.