A junior at the University of Michigan chooses apples at the Maize & Blue Cupboard.
Tucked away in a nondescript room on the second floor of the University of Michigan’s student union, a handful of students pour over boxes of apples and potatoes at the Maize & Blue Cupboard, a student-run food pantry, examining the produce much like they would at a grocery store. While some students bring friends and delight in walking away with leftover Thanksgiving pie from Costco, others are shy and stick to the essentials. Everyone, though, is grateful because the Maize & Blue Cupboard fills a crucial need on campus for access to affordable, healthy food.
The United States Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways”. In plain terms, researchers and community resources are increasingly asking the question: are you decreasing the quality or the quantity of the food that you’re eating due to lack of money to purchase food?
Although estimates of just how many students may lack access to affordable, healthy food vary, it’s evident that a significant proportion of the 20.2 million students that attended college this fall could be considered food insecure. At Western Oregon University, a 2014 study concluded that 59% of its students were considered food insecure. More recently, a study published by the American Public Health Association this November, estimated that one-third of college freshmen lack consistent access to adequate food.
With the cost of college rising every semester and many families still feeling the reverberations of the recession, students struggle to feed themselves, even at universities that pledge to meet full need, because their families are not able to contribute as much as the university expects.
The University of Michigan budgets a whopping $504 a month for food and the Office of Financial Aid insists that, with the exception of an unexpected financial emergency, students should not be hungry. Yet, a study conducted by Nicole Kasper, a PhD graduate from the School of Public Health, found that 48.45% of undergraduate students did not have enough to eat or could not eat a balanced diet due to budget concerns within the past year. “We’re kind of creating this space that makes it more difficult for students who do come from more disadvantaged backgrounds to succeed because it’s hard to get access food,” said Kasper.
Food insecurity has serious consequences on students’ physical and mental health as well as their academic performance in the classroom. Research has found that the adverse effects of food insecurity include increased risk of dropping out, lower GPAs, and increased risk for obesity. In response, student-run campus food pantries have stepped up to become a critical stopgap for college students in need.
Students and staff at Michigan State University established the first student-run, on-campus food pantry in 1993. Since then, the College and University Food Bank Alliance, founded by Michigan State University’s Student Food Bank and Oregon State University in 2013, has grown to 244 members spanning large public universities, community colleges, and a handful of private institutions. While student food banks range from closets to sophisticated operations, they all share a common goal of providing healthy, accessible food to those students who might not otherwise seek help.
Haley Moraniec, a Social Work student at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, MI, established Swoop’s, a new student food pantry, this past September. Moraniec said, “I realized that others, much like myself, are faced with tough decisions of choosing between paying for food, medical expenses, tuition, textbooks, and much more.”
Swoop’s, like Maize & Blue Cupboard, provides both perishable and non-perishable food items obtained through student, faculty, and community donations as well as a partnership with Food Gatherers, a local nonprofit. In a given month, Food Gatherers provides over 1,500 pounds of produce to three on-campus food pantries in Washtenaw County: Swoop’s, Maize & Blue Cupboard, and an emergency food pantry at Washtenaw Community College. Moraniec stressed that it was important to Swoop’s to provide healthy food options for students.
While student groups are making important progress toward raising awareness about food insecurity and food accessibility, some still feel as though university administrators could do more to directly support students affected by food insecurity.
This past March, Janet Napolitano, the president of the University of California system, allocated $750,000 to support both short-term relief and long-term solutions. However, at the University of Michigan, Molly Labrousse from the Dean of Students Office admitted that their efforts have so far been limited to sharing information about healthy recipes and campus farmers markets through a newsletter for off-campus students.
Kasper and Colleen Rathz, a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, proposed that the administration sponsor a grocery store on campus that would provide affordable, healthy food for students. “One of the major contributors that students have identified with the problem of accessing food is not having a grocery store within walking distance,” said Kasper.
Rathz described how some of her friends would spend four hours on the bus roundtrip to get access to affordable produce while others paid high markups for food near campus and were forced to skip meals toward the end of the semester. In a price comparison of common grocery items across every store in Ann Arbor, MI, stores within walking distance of campus were less likely to have items, 85% more expensive on average, and had lower quality fruits and vegetables than stores outside of campus.
Conversation about hunger on campus is increasing at universities across the country and Rathz hopes that it will encourage more students and administrators to take action. Rathz said, “People think that, if you’re at Michigan and you’re a student there, that these types of issues don’t penetrate the campus, but they certainly do.”