After a long, slow rise, awareness of the food waste problem has exploded into an exciting movement in the last 4-5 years — as well it should — as many people recognize the extreme social, environmental, and financial costs of global food loss and waste and its importance to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. One of the significant drivers of this movement has been realization of the missed opportunity to feed people with excess food resources, and particular frustration over the extreme disconnect between excess food and excessive hunger. In the US alone, for example, we waste over 120 billion pounds of food annually, yet at the same time over 40 million Americans (one in eight) experience food insecurity.
We can (and should) analyze hunger in all key segments of our population, but one subset that has received a particular surge in attention in just the last few years – largely in parallel with the wave of interest in food waste – is that of hunger on college campuses.
For decades we’ve tolerated excessive food waste in all areas of our developed society; it’s been hiding in plain sight due to cultural norms based on abundant food – and we’ve been uncomfortable with addressing it directly. Cheap disposal options have reinforced that tolerance. At the same time, hunger on college campuses has been similarly hidden – and a very great topic of discomfort. Administrators have long been reluctant to admit that a portion of their student population could be struggling with hunger; that notion fundamentally clashes with our deep-rooted views of the college experience – the opportunity to explore new horizons, and the freedom to push the boundaries of learning. How can one do that while battling hunger? For many, the notion of hunger on college campuses simply does not compute, and they largely dismiss it. Others reflect on their own (very valid) stories of working through school with limited resources and cheap food, and they consider some level of sacrifice around food (and perhaps a skipped meal or two) as a normal part of the educational process.
But the problem is now so large that we need to challenge those long-held beliefs.
Fortunately, the issue of hunger on college campuses is now receiving a great deal of visibility, driven by the work of Sara Goldrick-Rab and team from the Wisconsin Hope Lab (which has evolved to the Hope Center in Philadelphia).
A series of papers from the Hope Lab, such as Hungry to Learn (December 2015) and Hungry and Homeless in College (March 2017) have not only awakened us to the extent of hunger on campus, they have made it safe (and necessary) to talk about it. The first, a survey of 4,000+ undergraduate students at ten community colleges in seven states, revealed that 52% of the respondents were at least marginally food insecure (21% expressed a very low level of food security). The second paper, a study of 33,000 students at 70 community colleges across 24 states, found that 67% of the student respondents were food insecure. A third paper, Still Hungry and Homeless in College (April 2018), which surveyed 43,000 students in 66 institutions over 20 states, found that 42% of community college students were at the lowest or very lowest levels of food security. In addition, 36% of university students were at the same levels.
Similarly, In March of 2016, Dubick, Matthews and Cady released Hunger on Campus: The Challenge of Food Insecurity for College Students from a survey of 3,765 students in 34 schools (8 community colleges, and 26 four-year colleges and universities). The report indicated that 48% of overall respondents experienced food insecurity, while 22% experienced very low levels of food security.
A recent GAO report, Better Information Could Help Eligible College Students Access Federal Food Assistance Benefits, noted that in 2017 the federal government spent more than $122 billion (in grants, loans, and work-study funds) to improve access to college for students. Significantly, it also pointed out the obvious: that investment is “at risk” if a high percentage of students can’t afford life’s basic necessities – such as food. By extension, if students are not eating, their ability to learn is impaired as well.
Amidst the backdrop of many of these findings, in December of 2017 New York’s Governor Cuomo noted that there were nearly 2.7 million New Yorkers (including about 1 million children) who lacked consistent access to the food they needed to live an active and healthy life. Cuomo unveiled a proposal to launch a No Student Goes Hungry Program to provide NY students of all ages (kindergarten through college) with access to healthy, locally-sourced meals. And shortly thereafter, building on prior discussions concerning the level of hunger on the state’s college and university campuses, the SUNY Food Insecurity Task Force was created in support of the Governor’s No Student Goes Hungry Program.
The goal of the Task Force, as noted by SUNY Chancellor Kristina Johnson, is “to study the issue of food insecurity on college campuses and recommend the necessary changes and best practices to alleviate this serious issue.”
Another key charge of the Task Force, as covered in Governor Cuomo’s proposal, is to ensure that all SUNY schools 1) have physical food pantries on campus, or 2) have established partnerships with off-site organizations to ensure that needy students can receive food in a stigma-free environment. That’s pretty forward thinking, recognizing that when students are hungry and they lack consistent access to food (especially nutritious food), they can’t learn effectively.
The Task Force is comprised of a multidisciplinary group of students, staff, faculty, service providers, community and philanthropic leaders, and business leaders who see the importance of feeding students in need, and who are inspired to meet that innovative goal of food access by establishing a pantry at all campus locations. There’s an element of “aiming high” here, to set a standard that can spread to other states to address the seriously high rates of hunger on college campuses.
To be clear, the pantries are not a panacea regarding college hunger. Beyond the immediate need of providing food to students to enable attendance and learning, there are serious root cause issues to be addressed. But the focus on pantries is a key starting point — bringing transparency to the high levels of food insecurity on campuses, encouraging partnerships and solutions to overcome barriers and identify solutions, and driving recognition of the obvious point that to learn effectively, students need to eat. And at the end of the day, we all have a vested interest in having our students succeed – because they comprise the next generation workforce to power our economy.
The SUNY project is inspirational – and as I participate in each working session and reflect on the staggering statistics on food insecurity in the Hope Lab (and other) reports – I am struck by the potential for such an initiative to be replicated in other states and school systems. And now, just over a year after getting the Task Force underway, the initial goal of establishing a pantry or a pantry relationship for stigma-free access to food on all 64 SUNY campuses has been met. As a result, the Task Force can turn its attention to other issues – such as elevating the focus on nutrition at the pantries, collecting data to guide development, establishing partnerships and attaining resources to make them durable, and sharing best practices to make them effective.
It’s also a time to promote creativity in terms of how each campus can address student hunger. In California, for example, Cal State Fullerton partnered with its food service provider, Aramark, to enable students to donate guest meals to other students in need. Aramark matched the donations. In the process, many of the donating students wrote messages of inspiration to the recipients of the guest meals – thus building a sense of community among students. Further, the University enacted Titan Bites – an app that provides push notifications to student subscribers of the availability of excess food following catered campus events. Students can then go pick up the excess food at no cost within a designated time period. Students are fed, and food that would otherwise be wasted is reduced.
We have far too much hunger in the U.S., and as the Hope Lab (and other) studies indicate, we have far too much hunger on our college campuses.
At the same time, we also have far too much wastage of perfectly good food. And we have the opportunity to build community by taking some simple steps to reliably get excess healthy food to students in need so they can learn. In so doing we can build community and inspire students to “give back” in the future. There are barriers to overcome in any such program, but they are not insurmountable, and they can be accomplished without taking away the incentive for hard work.
Food insecurity rates of 50% on our college campuses? We can do much better for our students, starting with feeding them.