Opinion: Food-insecure students are left to fend for themselves during spring break
The University’s limited meal plan options for spring break leave low-income students, a disproportionate amount of which are first-generation, hungry
Students often use spring break as an opportunity to travel or rest. However, at American University, those who cannot afford to leave campus face a reality far from adventure or relaxation. First-generation students are more likely to stay on campus over breaks, as they face greater degrees of financial instability and have less income to travel. The University leaves these on-campus students vulnerable to food insecurity over the week-long break as its meal plans become almost entirely unusable with no adequate alternatives.
Over 10 percent of AU’s student population is made up of first-generation students, necessitating well-funded and organized resources for the group. Being first-generation can come with a variety of challenges, such as financial insecurity, balancing jobs and navigating new experiences with little guidance. In order to save money, these students often need to stay on campus with what should be secure dining.
However, the options available during spring break did not reflect secure dining. An email from One Card and Dining Services on March 6 stated that only the Eagles Nest and Subway, two out of the usual 13 dining options, would remain open over spring break and with limited hours.
Initially, neither the Eagles Nest or Subway would allow meal exchanges over the break, rendering AU’s meal plans useless. Only after concern from first-generation students did the Office of One Card and Dining Services allow the use of meal plans at the limited locations. The Market, a University-run food pantry for students facing food insecurity, was also closed during spring break despite increased student vulnerability. Having only two dining options and the closed food pantry left little to no options for students.
First-generation students already face increased inequalities and struggle, often on an isolating path. Subjecting students to exhaustion and hunger is in itself unacceptable, but this increased marginalization is appalling. Supporting first-generation students and other marginalized groups is a year-round commitment, not performative action to maintain when convenient.
The price of AU’s meal plans is excessively high for dining that is not maintained year-round and increases existing inequalities. Moreover, the dining is not affordable for many first-generation students, as AU’s meal plans are approximately 13 percent more expensive than the national average of $4,500 per year. Despite these excessive costs, the Office of One Card and Dining Services requires all freshmen and sophomores living on campus to be on a meal plan. The Office continues to push financial and food insecurity as it makes no exceptions to its mandatory meal policy based on economic reasons. Students are then forced to spend money on an inconsistent meal plan that could increase their food insecurity. As the University almost completely removes meal plan use during spring break, a time of increased financial stress and food insecurity, it should allow students to opt out based on economic considerations and decrease its prices.
The locations open during spring break did not provide adequate dining. Having only two out of 13 dining areas open already left on-campus students with little to no options. The options available pushed those with dietary and religious restrictions into an environment where they could not eat.
First-generation students with dietary restrictions or religious restrictions found themselves with essentially no food options. The salads, sushi and pre-packaged kosher meals promised at Eagles Nest were in extremely limited quantities, and Subway’s only non-meat option is tuna. Combating food insecurity begins with adequate access to food for all, meaning AU must provide more inclusive dining options for students during all breaks.
Although The Market is supposed to assist those facing food insecurity, it provided no support over spring break. The Market’s complete absence over spring break created panic among first-generation students used to its availability. These students found themselves with no on-campus alternatives to Subway and Eagle’s Nest. As many first-generation students stayed on campus for financial reasons, it is safe to assume that they also do not have the funds for daily takeout to supplement The Market’s absence. Many students were left sharing the limited food they had, and although it is noble, it is not a situation students should be in. AU has an obligation to maintain promised resources like The Market, especially with the knowledge that at least 10 percent of their student population may remain on campus.
Resources combating food insecurity must also be well funded. AU supplies The Market once a week, but continues to ask for donations from its student body, saying that it cannot provide more than a weekly stock. This makes little sense, as a 2016 survey on food insecurity at AU found that 44 percent of its students had faced food insecurity. Asking those facing food insecurity to donate food seems ineffective. If more money was allotted to these resources, it could remain open and well-supplied during breaks without student sacrifices.
AU’s minimal dining over spring break was unacceptable and furthered the marginalization of first-generation students. The University must maintain more inclusive dining options in the future and allot more funding to its food insecurity resources. AU shouldn’t be adding to the list of battles first-generation students have to fight.
Rebeca Samano is a sophomore in the School of Public Affairs and a staff columnist for The Eagle.
This article was edited by Jelinda Montes, Alexis Bernstein and Abigail Pritchard. Copy editing done by Isabelle Kravis, Natasha LaChac, Sarah Clayton and Leta Lattin.