Read this article as originally published in The New York Jewish Week.
On the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, the starting point for seeking mental health support is University Health Services; most students could rattle off the name without a second thought. Ask about resources available to their peers who are food-insecure, however, and that immediate answer is likely to be replaced by a blank stare. College students can be food-insecure?
Admittedly, I was one of the students who would have asked these questions prior to becoming involved with anti-hunger organizations Challah for Hunger and MAZON. Most college students have no concept of their peers’ financial situations, let alone any idea of how to help those who are facing complex challenges such as food insecurity. The university does have resources, though limited, to assist food-insecure students: So where are they, and why don’t students know where to find them?
The scope of the problem, it turns out, is significant. In the past, telling students who work and attend college to “eat some ramen noodles” or “just eat a bowl of cereal” may have been enough to get them through a rough patch until they received their next paycheck. Not anymore. A recent report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) stated that 39 percent of undergraduates in the U.S. come from low-income households, a number of whom may suffer from food insecurity. Many individuals with a high risk of becoming food-insecure are college students who are financially independent from their families, supporting families while attending university classes or those attending two-year programs. Think SNAP, known to the public as “food stamps,” is an option? For those students unable to work the minimum requirement of 20 hours, think again.
“In my experience, I’ve found that my inability to secure stable access to food or shelter was widely regarded as a mark against my character, my deservingness of a college education in a campus community, and my potential wherein administration viewed my higher education opportunity as a gamble rather than an investment from a worthwhile place,” Brooke Evans, a 2017 graduate who encountered periods of food insecurity while on campus, told The View From Campus. “These latent barriers typically embody at least one of four descriptors, namely that I must be deficient, deviant, disabled or dishonest.”
The initial solution seems obvious: better advertising of a university’s resources to help tackle the problem. For students deciding between two universities with comparable academics and campus cultures, the knowledge of these resources could even become a tipping point in their decision. But it’s more complicated than that, both for students who may be embarrassed to use the campus food pantry and for administrators.
“From financial aid policy to segregation in housing and dining facilities, students who experienced hunger or housing-insecurity were rendered invisible and dismissed,” said Evans. “In some cases, when administrators learned of students facing these challenges, they were insistent that these students could not possibly exist; that their conditions were ultimately a result of their own personal failing; that they simply couldn’t ‘hack it’; that they must be mentally ill with a disability; and that no data collection or funding would be devoted to supporting this population.”
The problem, though, appears to be a serious one. The GAO found that 22 of the 31 studies summarized in its most recent report showed campus food insecurity rates greater than 30 percent. The GAO findings and the growing number of student organizations committed to fighting the issue are signs that this issue is becoming more prevalent.
It’s not that the university is doing nothing. It does provide food-insecure students with a list of resources through the University Health Services website; among them are the campus food pantry, Badger FARE ($25 meal cards) and relevant student organizations, as well as local and national resources including a Lutheran Campus Center and SNAP. These resources provide temporary assistance to students facing food insecurity, and those in need of ongoing assistance are advised to reach out to the Dean of Student’s Office.
A university spokeswoman stressed that “We have a web page devoted to these resources which we promote through multiple channels; there is also a printed version available for free in various offices across campus. In addition, the Dean of Students Office provides individualized assistance to students facing food insecurity, including information about … crisis loans/grants.”
Yet these resources only become known to students when they seek them out. If more of the general student body knew about these resources, that could lead to students advocating for and sympathizing with the situations of their peers. Making these resources more known to the entire student population validates the existence of the problem on campus.
Food is a fundamental part of the college experience. It opens the door to conversations that often lead to friendships, communities and future professional networks. In my experience, weekend brunches with friends has been the norm; making challah every Wednesday helped me find my community on campus and my editorial and event-planning experiences for a food and lifestyle publication opened the door for conversations with food and restaurant industry professionals. I chose to become involved in organizations that give a voice to underserved populations, because I recognized the valuable contributions these people had to offer. Other students feel the same way; I’ve worked with some of them, whether it was a discussion about how to improve the campus food pantry or maintaining a partnership between Challah for Hunger and Slow Food UW, an organization that advances food justice in the Madison area. However, for every student whose eyes have been opened to the inequalities, there are thousands of others who don’t know what to look for. While students may be gleaning lessons from their textbooks, there are certain lessons that can only be conveyed through real discussions with real people.
All of this begs the question: Shouldn’t the main goal of universities be to produce the most well-rounded, employable candidates for the workplace? Further, aren’t the most well-rounded candidates the ones who were provided opportunities to build valuable networks by working with peers of all backgrounds, not just those that mimic their own? Universities should do more to admit that food-insecure students do in fact attend their institutions, and they should do more to integrate them into the wider student body so they get those invaluable opportunities.
It’s time to take a step back and re-evaluate the cost of sweeping campus hunger under the rug.