This Op-Ed piece comes from Anna Porter, a Campus Hunger Project Cohort member at the University of Vermont. As a part of the Cohort, students share their vision for change as a part of their campaigns in an Op-Ed.
The holiday season has always been characterized by “Holiday Food Drives” to local pantries. In elementary school, my parents would send me to school with canned peas or a box of pasta to throw into the bin. It’s so nice to think about donating your own food to others who need it more, but is it fair to ask everyone to donate when you don’t know their situation?
I am proud to be a part of a student body here at the University of Vermont that really cares about our peers and wants to make a difference. Everyday I see new opportunities for volunteering and making change. However, as a college student on a meal plan with off-campus friends fending for themselves to eat enough, I get confused when I see clubs running food drives driven by students. About half of the University of Vermont student population relies on meal plans, so they do not have kitchens full of non-perishables to donate. The other half lives off-campus and is in charge of their own eating and budgeting, and would likely not be willing to part with their sparse pantry fillings. If students do choose to part with the non-perishables they stock up on, it is still counterproductive to have cheap meals like “Easy Mac” and ramen noodles donated to people in need of more nutritionally balanced diets.
Food insecurity is a term describing not having a stable source of nutritionally adequate food for a healthy and productive life. In 2017, almost 12% of American households (15 million people) were food insecure*, and it is impossible to tell just by looking at someone that they are food insecure. However, it is easy to misjudge others and forget about certain populations when we think about food insecurity.
When people think about college students, they often wrongly picture young adults from affluent backgrounds with ample spending money for tuition, food, and fun. As this was a more common depiction of college students in the past, it is absolutely not the case now. It is reported that “of the 17 million undergraduate students in the U.S., about half are financially independent from their parents, one in five is at least 30 years old, one in four is caring for a child, 47 percent attend part time at some point, two out of five attended a two-year community college, and 44 percent have parents who never completed a bachelor’s degree.”**
Food insecurity on college campuses is a growing, yet hidden, issue. Research has found that about 40% of university students throughout the country have reported facing food insecurity***. These students are silently struggling to get the nutritional food they need. With rising tuition and textbook costs, there are many students unable to afford meal plans or proper groceries. Even transportation to affordable food vendors and pantries can be difficult to find. Lack of food is a stressor that distracts from studying, and hunger directly negatively impacts a student’s ability to focus and retain information. So why are we asking these students to donate their food to other people who are struggling, just like them?
It is a little known fact that many college campuses actually have on-campus food pantries for their students. There is even a National College and University Food Bank Alliance (CUFBA) with over 640 members****. On UVM’s campus there are two existing pantries, in the TRIO and MOSAIC centers, and one campus-wide food pantry coming to fruition. These pantries support many of their programs’ students, but are struggling to keep their shelves full. Instead of donating to pantries that are unused by students and have other means of receiving donations, we should be raising funds and collecting stock items for our school pantries.
As a student working with Challah for Hunger’s Campus Hunger Project, and a member of the UVM Food Insecurity Working Group, I have been studying potential solutions to our campus’, and other college campuses around the country’s, current food insecurity issues. There are many other options for getting students involved in combating food insecurity that do not require asking them to give away precious resources. Having students participate in a letter writing campaign to government officials and the University President, volunteer time at soup kitchens and pantries, and create campaigns to spread awareness for these issues are all ways to easily get people involved. The UVM Food Insecurity Working Group is also working to create a Swipe out Hunger campaign to allow students to donate extra meal swipes to a fund accessible to students in need. We do not have to stick to the basic food drive concept when we try to support our communities.
Even more true than that, students cannot successfully help the greater community while our own student body is struggling.
*Food Security in the US. USDA Economic Research Center. Retrieved on 14 November 2018 from https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/food-nutrition-assistance/food-security-in-the-us/key-statistics-graphics.aspx#foodsecure
**McCaughan, P. Campus ministers respond to hungry, homeless college students (November 6, 2018). Episcopal News Service. Retrieved on 14 November 2018 from https://www.episcopalnewsservice.org/2018/11/06/campus-ministers-respond-to-hungry-homeless-college-students/
*** Report: Hunger on Campus. National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness. Retrieved on 14 November 2018 from https://studentsagainsthunger.org/hunger-on-campus/
****Our Members. College and University Food Bank Alliance. Retrieved on 14 November 2018 from https://sites.temple.edu/cufba/members/