Our hungry: Recognizing the needs of food-insecure students on campus

May 4, 2016 by Sophia Schmidt

We can all agree that it takes a lot of energy to be a student at the College, but an alarmingly large minority of us also know how hard it is to do so on an empty stomach.

This fall, I conducted an anonymous survey to gauge the student body’s food consumption and provisioning patterns. Since the Provost’s Office refuses to circulate student-created surveys, I distributed mine through Daily Messages and the listservs of student groups. 1022 students participated in the survey, which asked the what and the why of students’ meal plans, skipped meal rates and supplementary food sources. The results were striking. It reported that 30 percent of students are on a meal plan lower than “the 21,” and of these, more than a third list “I need to put the money to other uses” rather than “I’d just like to save some money” as one of the reasons they switched to a lower meal plan. Most students supplement their lower meal plans with food from Stop and Shop, followed by free food from events on campus. However, 8 percent of students not on the 21 don’t supplement their meal plans at all, surviv-ing solely on 10 or 14 dining hall meals a week. The survery reported that 45 percent of students don’t skip meals, while 42 percent reluctantly skip on average one to three meals per week and 10 percent skip four to six. The remaining three percent – 60 students, when extrapolated to the whole student body – unwillingly skip an average of seven or more meals per week. When asked why they were forced to skip these meals, 36 percent of students listed lack of money as among the top three reasons, 52 percent listed lack of physical access to food and, as expected, 86 percent listed lack of time. Perhaps most distressingly, one in five students feel they’re not always able to get enough to eat.

All financial aid packages automatically cover the cost of the 21. For students on partial or no financial aid, dropping to a lower meal plan will result in a smaller term bill. Those on full financial aid have a term bill of $0, so a meal plan drop actually results in positive credit transferred to the student’s personal bank account. The Office of Financial Aid intends for this credit to supplement the student’s meal plan with groceries or restaurant meals. However, many students feel forced to spend the money on other things, whether that be non-food necessities or unexpected medical or travel costs (although the latter is reimbursed). Some students may send the money home to family.

The campus dietician and nutritional educator, Maria Cruz, has been approached by several food-insecure students and considers food access a serious issue. She notes that skipping meals and relying on the “lower nutrient-dense foods” that appear as freebies around campus “slows metabolism and causes undernourishment … lead[ing] to fatigue and health issues.” In other words, man shall not live by free Hot Tomatoes and cookies alone. Reduced or unpredictable caloric intake as well as worry about where the next meal will come from may cause food-insecure students to struggle with academic and social life. National studies have shown that food insecurity may also impact graduation rates.

Students working through Center for Learning in Action, the Great Ideas Committee and Eco-Advisors have explored a number of potential solutions. The College could allocate funding and space for a small emergency food pantry. We also could deliver coupons for the Wild Oats suspended groceries program to SU boxes on an anonymous request basis. This solution would take advantage of a pre-existing, under-utilized system, but constitutes a distasteful “taking” of resources from the North Adams community despite the College’s wealth. Students could use an informal meal credit sharing app similar to “Swipes,” designed by two Columbia students. Unfortunately this model, based on physical passing off of a student ID, won’t work here while we remain capped at one swipe per meal. The College explored a more formal swipe share program, where students with extra meal credits donate to a pool of swipes from which students in need can redeem a limited amount. This solution has the benefit of community building, but the funding for such a program is more complicated than it appears. Dining services accounts for the swipes we don’t use in their meal planning and pricing, so “extra” swipes are an illusion. Therefore any swipe share program would be a system of sharing in name only, more closely resembling a voucher program funded by a donation from dining services. Bob Volpi, director of dining services, has made clear that this is unlikely to occur.

Complicating all potential solutions is the fact that it’s unclear which office or department should shoulder this responsibility. Although the issue of food insecurity seems bound to dining services, meal plans are merely the place where a deeper problem surfaces. Food insecurity is a symptom of financial insecurity. Similarly, emergency food sources are hardly long-term solutions. Therefore, the path toward giving all students consistent, adequate access to healthy food begins with an institutional commitment to uncovering the root cause of food insecurity at the College, raising awareness, destigmatizing the issue and funding deep-reaching solutions. Luckily Vice President for Campus Life Steve Klass is interested in gathering more complete data to identify gaps in the institution’s support of students.

The College, with an endowment larger than the GDP of Liberia, and growing, has ample resources to provide for the basic needs of all students. Lack should not exist alongside such plenty. In its mission statement, our school promises to foster “direct engagement with human needs, nearby and far away.” As an institution we must now engage directly with the nearest needs: those of our hungry.

Sophia Schmidt ’17 is a biology and environmental policy double major from Wilmington, Del. She lives in Prospect House. 

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Celeste May 11, 2016 at 3:30 pm

….”with an endowment larger than the GDP of Liberia”

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Dylan Tweney July 15, 2016 at 6:00 pm

I’m an alumnus and noticed a poster about your survey on the wall in the Mission dining hall during reunion weekend last month. To be honest, it shocked me to see it. I’d be interested to hear about any developments since you published this story. Has the College taken any steps to clarify and/or resolve this issue? Are any campus organizations currently working on it? I (and other alumni) are curious to learn more.

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