While the exact rate of food insecurity among TU students is unknown, TU should consider instituting a meal swipe share program and a food pantry.
Going to class is sometimes tough enough, but going to class on an empty stomach, and not knowing where your next meal will be from or if that meal will be substantial, is ridiculous. But this happens to many college students.
That’s why I support TU’s effort to look into programs that allow students to share their meal swipes with others in need, which many other universities have implemented to great success.
Although we don’t have numbers for the University of Tulsa, various studies across different universities in the U.S. have confirmed that more college students face food insecurity than we might first guess.
What is food insecurity? According to the USDA, there are two levels of food insecurity: low food security, where an individual has “reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet,” or very low food security, where an individual has “reports of multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.”
A 2017 study by Katharine Broton and Sara Goldrick-Rab looked at 30,000 students at both two- and four-year colleges and found about half were food insecure. While most of these students received financial aid, they were often not able to receive assistance for food or housing. These results are not unique; the University of California system estimates 42 percent of their students are food insecure, while 19 percent qualified as hungry.
In 2009, 21 percent of students at the University of Hawaii, and in 2011, 39 percent of students at City University of New York, admitted to being food insecure.
Without a study at TU, of course, we can’t say exactly how many students are food insecure. But given the studies at other universities and considering the cost of TU, even with financial aid, it’s safe to say some percentage of our fellow students are food insecure.
And this food insecurity is a problem we should try to address, with whatever means we have available. Many organizations often offer free food at events — most of the church organizations on campus offer free lunch throughout the week, and various student-run clubs often serve food with their meetings. Student with food insecurity may attend these events to get their meal for the day. But students may be busy when the clubs are meeting or don’t have the time, with work and other responsibilities, to stay at a meeting just for the pizza.
Plus, what is generally served at these events? Sure, sometimes you get some good food, but pizza and sandwiches come up a little too often. And part of food insecurity is lacking nutritious food, which nourishes the body and mind. Filling up with pizza is better than nothing, but we could do more; we could fill our fellow students up with a varied diet.
Food insecurity has serious effects on academic performance. A survey at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, found that 80 percent of respondents said food insecurity affected their performance, with over half saying it had affected their ability to attend class. Food insecurity, closely tied with housing issues, also affected the ability to buy textbooks, attend classes or join activities. Another study found that college students who had trouble getting food were 22 percent less likely to earn a 3.5 – 4.0 GPA than a 2.0 – 2.49 GPA, after controlling for other factors. And doing poorly in class can perpetuate this cycle, as poor grades threaten scholarships and increase stress, forcing students to spend more time recovering in classes instead of being able to work.
And that’s why TU should do more to help students with food insecurity. Based on what has been done on other campuses, there are two major avenues to take: meal swipe donation programs and on-campus food pantries.
The first solution comes in many different forms but boils down this: students with extra meal swipes or dining dollars can choose to allocate a certain amount of these swipes or dollars to a pool, which students in need can then use when necessary. Because while some students have too little, others have too much.
This solution relies on willing dining services, but many programs out there exist to make the transition easier. One such program is “Swipe Out Hunger,” a non-profit group that allows students to donate meal points to a central fund, which is then turned into money based on an agreed-upon conversion rate. This money is then used to purchase food that can go to those in need. 36 different schools participate in this program. Other schools have chosen to not go through this non-profit but instead create their own system.
With this solution, working with dining services is essential. Dining companies have built into their meal plans a profit margin; they predict how much students will actually use each plan and price accordingly so they can profit, understandably so. But there are multiple avenues around this. Some campuses set a limit on the number of meals one can donate at a time; others set a period of time to donate; “Swipe Out Hunger” advocates for a conversion rate of meal swipes to money that is both favorable to the company and those in need.
As for how to access the donated swipes, there’s also a variety of options. Some schools require students to visit their health center to confirm need, others do not need any proof, offering the opportunity to whoever claims it.
Either way, we need to make sure that we respect and honor the dignity of individuals, so they feel comfortable taking advantage of the service without fear of being judged. Most schools give students a card, or load their student IDs, with a certain number of meal swipes, with the potential to request more throughout the semester.
With the combination of ways to accomplish this solution to student hunger, the university has a lot to discuss before implementation. But it’s not unknown territory; many colleges have tried and succeed at this before. In 2017, the University of Minnesota attempted a Swipe Out Hunger drive, and on the first day, got 300 donated meal swipes. Yes, their campus is bigger than TU’s, but imagine if we did get 300 meal donations. That’d go a lot further here than there.
The second solution is an on-campus food pantry, which is becoming more frequent on campuses. In 2016, more than 300 campuses had food pantries. Again, there are options for this solution. University of Massachusetts Boston, for instance, requires some sort of statement of needs to access their food pantry, but others, like Norwalk Community College, don’t ask questions in hopes of destigmatizing access. These two solutions walk a fine line between giving help to those who truly need it and allowing free-loaders to take advantage.
Such a food pantry can be run entirely by volunteers and stocked with donations. Norwalk Community College obtains donations from various stores in Norwalk, Connecticut, of food they’re about to throw away. If that’s too much work for students to run, student donations could also supplement the pantry. The University of Colorado Denver even runs an incentive program to encourage donations: during one week, students who donate more than five items can win a free daily parking pass.
A program like that could stock TU’s pantry initially and then rely off student donations from outside companies after. And TU should be able to stock the pantry; at the end of every year, some students, usually Presidential Scholars, complain about having too many dining dollars left. These students could buy non-perishable food items and household items to stock up the pantry in preparation for next year.
Students could easily form a club to run the food pantry. It might not have the same air of officialness, but it would do the same work. It could meet, weekly, biweekly or monthly, opening its doors for anyone to come in and grab some food or supplies they desperately need. If it’s student-run, it could be no-questions-asked, and students could work on an honor system to ensure those who visit the pantry don’t feel like they’ll be outed or shamed for it.
These solutions are dependent on university cooperation. And while I’m sure our university officials want to help students whenever and however possible, I also understand that negotiations and bureaucracy can slow even the most well-meaning. So until then, I’d like to ask TU students to step up to the plate. Very soon TU dining will be running a trial of a meal swipe sharing program like I mentioned; if you’re able to, donate and show the university this is a program they need to continue. Advocate for a food pantry on campus and donate when it becomes available.
I know students can do all these things because we already do. TU students already donate items to pantries in the Tulsa area during donation drives, but we should also help our fellow students in need. TU is a wildly expensive school, and financial aid and work sometimes won’t cover all of it. No one should worry about going hungry at college; we’ve got enough tests and projects and homework to generate anxiety. This is a real problem that I believe TU students can step up and fix.