D.C. universities attempt to mitigate food insecurity; are food pantries enough?
By Allison Desy
Becca spent the summer waitressing to save up money to pay for rent for her off-campus housing and food for the upcoming academic year.
In August, just weeks before the start of the semester, Becca, a sophomore at American University said that she received notice of an overdue tuition balance stating that she still owed $2,300 for the fall semester. She said that she had miscalculated the amount she needed to take out in loans. The majority of the hard-earned money meant to sustain her throughout the semester went to cover the bill.
“Working is helpful, but since I dropped all that money, I have $500 in my bank account and rent comes up at the end of the month,” Becca said.
As a result, Becca said she cannot afford the food she needs. She has resorted to stealing from the local Giant grocery store to feed herself.
“Giant is really easy to steal from,” she said. “That’s the easiest way around it, to get good food that is going to support your body. I don’t necessarily like stealing, but it’s what I do.”
Becca declined to give her last name.
Becca often takes Amy’s frozen brand burritos. They are too expensive for her to buy, but provide a quick meal on the go.
Universities take action against campus food insecurity
Data collected by American University shows that Becca is not alone and that many students at the school are affected by food insecurity.
Of the 700 recorded responses from undergraduate students, 44 percent said that they did not have enough food for themselves at some point during their time in college, according to a December 2016 American University undergraduate student survey conducted by students.
This information helped the university identify the need for a food pantry on campus. On Sept. 5, 2017, the school officially opened The Market, pantry with non perishable food that is open to students 18 hours a day.
Despite this being the third semester that AU’s food pantry has been open, Becca said that she had just recently learned of its existence. She also said that she has not used the pantry’s services and probably will not in the future, in part because she feels that she may be judged by her peers for being food insecure while attending a costly private university.
“I think there is a level of guilt on the AU campus. If you’re food insecure because you’re paying $63,000 a year [for tuition]. Why should you go to a food pantry when you’re paying this much for this? Why would you be food insecure?” she said. “Maybe it’s also pride, too. That’s probably a big factor for a lot of people.”
The majority of the food available to students at The Market comes from the Capital Area Food Bank, according to the pantry’s webpage.
Other colleges and universities in Washington, D.C., including George Washington University and the University of the District of Columbia, have also opened on-campus food pantries within recent years.
Doni Russell, the director of student outreach and leadership development at UDC, also runs the school’s food pantry. At UDC, students can get non-perishable goods and toiletries at any time, day or night. On Thursday afternoons, the pantry also offers fresh produce to students. Russell said that much of the fresh produce comes from the UDC’s Firebird Farm in Beltsville, Maryland as well as from their rooftop garden.
“We also have food that’s donated from Bread Furst, which is an artisan market up the street, Russell said. “We make sure that we’re providing not only fresh produce, but we’re also getting you fresh grain foods.”
She said that she thinks the fresh food portion of the pantry is most important because of how nutrition affects the mind and body.
“If you’re not getting a nutritious, balanced diet, you cannot possibly be expected to succeed academically,” Russell said.
Russell said that she has seen an increase in the number of students attending the fresh food pantry on Thursdays, and some weeks she hosts up to 90 students over the course of three hours. She said she also feels that many people do not understand the layers of food insecurity, so the concept of being food insecure and the act of using food pantry services are often stigmatized. “I think that’s one of the reasons that I focus so much on fresh food and fresh produce as a solution to food insecurity,” Russell said. “I believe that focusing on fresh produce takes away the stigma that is focused on having pantries.”
Student IDs are required for entry to both The Market and the UDC pantry. Russell said she allows multiple students into the fresh food pantry at once to reduce the stigma and to foster a sense of community.
“Once you start to break that down and get them out of that mindset, it becomes way easier,” she said. “And I think they share that with their counterparts because they bring their friends with them. It becomes a community thing.”
Are food pantries the solution?
For Dan Abrams, the director of The Campus Kitchens Project, food pantries are just the first step. The Campus Kitchens Project is an organization that leads high-school and collegiate volunteers to recover and repurpose food to feed community members facing food insecurity. “Food alone won’t end hunger,” Abrams said. “Food alone won’t end or solve our social problems in this country. We need long-term, lasting solutions. Immediate hunger relief is important and critical and crucial, but we need to do more than that.”
Abrams said students involved in The Campus Kitchens Project are required to work on an additional project that directly addresses the barriers to entry that create hunger, food waste and poverty.
Although many schools involved in the program choose to donate their food to homeless shelters, Abrams said that there has been a significant increase in requests by schools to keep the meals on campus for student consumption.
“Last March, we were at a conference for all of the student affairs professionals across the country… And the number one question we got, hands down is, ‘can this food stay on campus?’” Abrams said he thinks that this increase in requests comes from a combination of higher rates of food insecurity on college campuses and more awareness of students facing insecurity in college. “The number of food pantries has increased since the ‘90s, but so has the number of Americans facing food insecurity,” Abrams said.
Through The Campus Kitchens Project, students do not only donate food. They are also required to create a program that directly addresses the barriers to opportunity that lead to hunger, poverty and food waste, Abrams said. Are food pantries enough to combat the ongoing issue of food insecurity?
“I think there’s a real question on whether or not pantries are the solution,” he said. “Some of the greatest programs in our network have a food pantry, but they do more than a food pantry.” For Becca, the campus food pantry is not necessarily a solution. She said that the food she really needs is fresh produce and meats, things that are not available at the pantry. But she said is beginning to notice the physical effects of not having enough to eat.
You like to have food that tastes good too, you don’t just want it to be just food. You want to be able to enjoy it too,” Becca said. “I have lost so much weight since the beginning of school. I think I’ve maybe lost 20 pounds.”