Opinion: AU students are not immune to the epidemic of food insecurity
Innovative student-led ventures stand in stark contrast to bureaucratic laziness of university on issue of student food insecurity
The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods … or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.”
Food insecurity plagues communities on every plain of society, and the issue is only worsening.
According to Feeding America’s latest food insecurity map, nearly 13 percent of Americans are food insecure. With the average meal cost set at $3, our annual food budget falls roughly $21,000,000,000 short in feeding America. Even here in the District, one in seven families is hungry. Food insecurity does not discriminate, and AU’s student body isn't immune to this epidemic.
Comparable to most collegiate institutions, American University’s tuition is roughly $65,000 a year and, on average, $35,000 for students receiving financial aid. The idea that students attending AU experience hunger may be inconceivable for much of the student body, especially first-year students, many of whom are wealthy enough to pay the full price tag of AU’s tuition.
Regardless of the University’s monetary wealth, hundreds of students at American cannot afford the quarter-of-a-million-dollar undergraduate education. Additionally, these students, even those who are granted need-based aid, are not exempt from chronic hunger.
Access to a financial aid package does not disallow anyone, including students enrolled in a campus meal plan, from experiencing hunger. However, upperclassmen and graduate students—those who have less access to free food events, live off campus and rarely have meal plans—disproportionately encounter food insecurity.
Fortunately, there are student-led services working to replenish the needs of everyone. One such community leader is Elena Vernikos, a CLEG major in the School of Public Affairs and the brains behind Free Food AU, an online group linking well over 1,000 students to free food events on campus.
Additionally, as of last year, the Center for Innovation sponsors AU Swipes, a student run service that connects “swipers”—primarily first year students with required meal plans—with students unable to pay the $17.00 “value” price of TDR. Instead, via cash or Venmo, students pay swipers $4 for their meal, as well as gain access to Free Food Friday, a monthly event granting free entry to TDR. The student-venture, which is not currently operating, is seeking sponsorship from the University.
Despite these groups’ efforts to publicize the issue of food insecurity as well as the campus resources available, Facebook updates and posts on the bulletin boards in Letts Hall are slow to transcend the culture of shame that accompanies hunger on campus. Congruent with college students’ assumptions of universal wealth on their respective (private) campuses, stigma around food insecurity puts students in danger. Even when students qualify for food assistance, stigma works to discourage students from taking advantage of such services.
In an interview, Vernikos argued that this culture of shame manifests on AU’s campus. She contended that “we need an open dialogue.”
In the latter half of our conversation, Vernikos proposed another reason as to why, even amidst the work of student-led coalitions, the issue of food insecurity remains largely invisible: there are few preventative university measures in place to combat student hunger. While the services listed above work to target the food insecurity felt by many students on campus, they fail to enact need-based policy and or redistribute university resources to combat this problem.
Instead, by definition, these are merely services: smart pathways created (by students) to guide students struggling to navigate a system in desperate need of renovation. Students are forming impressive networks to fight food insecurity, and this grassroots movement stands in disappointing contrast to what Vernikos identified as the “bureaucratic laziness of AU.”
AU's food pantry—the Market—is a consistent source of food for some students, but it can not fulfill the unique needs of everyone and should not be the sole, University-sanctioned, free-food provider.
I came to AU from a wealthy college preparatory high school in San Francisco. In an effort to foster “independence” and community integration, my school had an “open campus.” This means there was no cafeteria or lunch program which especially affected students like myself who received nearly-full tuition assistance.
In my attempts to evaluate the issue of hunger at AU, I found it nearly impossible to find any statistics published by the University, with the exception of one student-conducted survey that received a 23 percent response rate in 2016. There is an alarming regularity with which hungry students are forced to talk about food insecurity, and the University seems to be dangerously quiet in this conversation.
In an effort to pressure AU to take ownership of the issue of hunger on campus, us students ought to take it upon ourselves to foster a meaningful, holistic dialogue about food insecurity. This conversation can and must start with a privilege check: what did you eat for dinner last night? What will you have for lunch today? How? Why?
While recognizing our individual privileges will stimulate this dialogue, a shift in culture must be incentivised by AU with generous, effective plans to allocate resources to students who will otherwise be left unrecognized and hungry.
Sophia Brill is a freshman in College of Arts and Sciences. They are an outside contributor. The opinions expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Eagle and its staff.