U of U addresses college students & food insecurity

By Abby Reyes

   The increasing food insecurity among low-income, unemployed Black, and Latina/o populations in the U.S. is also now an issue colleges and universities have to face. In the last few years, food pantries have been established at higher education institutions across the nation—including at the University of Utah— to address the fact that financial demands on college students limit their ability to purchase sufficient and nutritious food.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), food insecurity is “a limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.” The Children’s Sentinel Nutrition Assessment Program (C-SNAP) further describes food insecurity as a household’s uncertain or limited access to enough food for all household members to lead an active and healthy life, and indicates that it occurs in communities that are deeply rooted in poverty and constrained financial resources. As such, “Black and Latino children experience disproportionately higher rates of poverty compared with children of other racial/ethnic groups,” and are “at an increased risk” for “developmental impairments.”
A few U.S. universities with high enrollments of first-generation, low-income, and/or racially diverse students compared food insecurity nationally and their campus students and staff. The University of Hawaiʻi at Mãnoa (UHM) found that in 2006, 10.9% of all U.S. households surveyed were food-insecure, and an additional 24% of households were at high risk for food insecurity. In contrast, 21% of UHM students sampled were food insecure and another 24% were at risk for experiencing food insecurity. College students of color, then are likely to suffer with food insecurity, which has been proven to be detrimental to positive learning and health outcomes.
Last year, the University of Utah’s Center for Student Wellness administered a survey revealing just over half of students sampled were categorized as “food insecure.” In response, five University of Utah offices partnered to discuss launching a food pantry on-campus and a space has now been reserved on the second floor of the Campus Store for this pantry named Feed U.
Students might recognize the space unofficially as the campus bookstore where they might purchase their textbooks—this is where Feed U is housed. Feed U opened in October 2014 and is available for campus community members experiencing food insecurity to pick up food. Students present a valid Ucard, and to complete a short and confidential one-time application.
As the intern manager for Feed U, I coordinate the student and staff volunteers that make the pantry function. Most of the food in the pantry is donated by the Utah Food Bank, but as word of the pantry’s presence has spread, student groups have organized their own food drives to support the pantry. The pantry has assisted nearly 60 undergraduate, graduate, and international students. Some of these students are providers for a family. Some students need to return for more food throughout the semester. In addition to providing non-perishable items, FeedU also can refer students to other local pantries around Salt Lake and neighboring cities, some of which serve warm meals.
Some might be surprised to learn that food insecurity is a problem that should be addressed in academia. Others might hold assumptions that as college students, we are expected to be able to afford and access a basic necessity such as groceries in the context of obtaining a degree. However, institutions expect students to come prepared to their courses which may mean purchasing expensive textbooks or school supplies in addition to paying tuition costs and living expenses. Many first-generation and students of color living below the poverty line, find themselves needing to prioritize their needs. This might mean resorting to cheaper and quicker food options that do not support good health or choosing between groceries, a medical visit or medicine, rent, or textbooks—none of which a student should have to live without. Feed U aims to support students in alleviating the stress of having to make these types of difficult decisions by providing free food options and a friendly greeting from a peer.
The University of Utah is not alone in addressing this issue. All of Utah’s public higher education institutions have a food pantry: Utah State University, Utah Valley University, Dixie State University, Salt Lake Community College, and the University of Utah.