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Food Insecurity on Campus

Hunger.  It’s real.  It’s in our society.  And whether you know it or not, it affects college students at an alarming rate.  It’s called food insecurity….it sounds less threatening, but sadly, many students face this dilemma one or more times during their studies.

We can discuss the why’s of how this is happening.  Continuously rising college costs, financial aid not keeping up with these costs, difficulty in finding work that accommodates student studies, just to name a few. But the bottom line is we need to find a way to beat hunger on campus.  Today, let’s focus on what we, as consultants, can do to stamp out hunger.

Every college campus tour features a stop at the student center replete with a dining hall featuring more bells and whistles than ever.  We offer nutritious meals, allergen-friendly foods, zillions of choices…after all we want our students to eat well.   College dining, always a necessity, has become an amenity as well.   Food security equals a higher level of academic success.   But how about the student who struggles financially?  The student who needs to choose between paying for textbooks or paying for food?    How do we help them?

On-Campus Food Pantries

It seems fairly obvious.  Open a campus food pantry.  And for years, schools have done just that.  A good example is Michigan State University; they became the first student-run, campus-based food assistance program in the United States way back in 1993.  Others have followed suit.

But there are obstacles to this idea.  How do you make a food pantry?  Where is it located?  How do you carve out space for the pantry?  How much space needs to be allocated for the program to be successful?  How do you figure out the flow of distribution to the pantry?  What equipment do you need to keep food at the proper temperature?  Is there a daily hot or prepared foods grab n go offering?  What do you need to make all this happen?

It seems daunting.  But the solutions to all these questions lie in first determining what the pantry program will include.  Foodservice design consultants can work with the college or university to create this program, and then develop a design, unique to these needs.  And in the case of new construction of a dining facility, a food pantry can be programmed into the space in the early phases of design.

A food pantry can be as simple as a place to store and distribute “canned foods.”  Or with some ingenuity and the right design, it becomes a place where nutrition is taught, instructional cooking takes place, and meals are served based on ingredients offered within the pantry.

How to Get “Buy-In?”  Some Out-of-the Box Ideas

So, now you have a food pantry.  The next big challenge is how to get buy-in from students who need it most?  They might feel embarrassed or ashamed that they need help.  There might be a perceived stigma attached to using these resources.  They might even think that since they work or receive financial aid, they can’t use it, that there are others who need it more.

Once again, creativity comes into play.  Why not create a monthly calendar of events on campus featuring health-conscious free meals?  Or offer a free weekly “ugly” fruit and vegetables market, conveniently located near the pantry, where all students can pick up items that might otherwise get tossed out?  Perhaps left-over prepared foods from dining halls’ breakfast, lunch, and dinner can become a free event at the campus pantry under the guise of a “don’t waste it – eat it” campaign.  Maybe a “stamping out food insecurity” campaign can be written into the Foodservice Operator Selection requirements when the time comes to select and contract with an Operator for campus feeding.

There are lots of ways to create a stigma-free environment for students in need with a little imagination and a lot of buy-in from the university or college.

Sharing the Wealth

How many students with meal plans end up losing the unused “swipes” at the end of the semester?  It happens a lot.  So much so that in 2010, a group of friends at UCLA founded a program called Swipe Out Hunger.  The concept is simple, the reward, great.  Students with meal plans donate unused meals to a meal bank so that those in need may use them.  According to their website, eighty-two colleges participate currently.  Ideally, this kind of program could reach every college and university around the country, making a significant dent in the number of students feeling the effects of not having enough to eat.

The Bottom Line

We need to eliminate food insecurity across our college campuses.  Our students are our future and we want them to be successful and contributing members of our society.  They, in fact, are the leaders of our future.  No one wins if hunger persists.  Let’s all work together to alleviate food insecurity with some simple and creative adjustments to campus foodservice operations.

By:  Katja Beck

Project Manager | Ft. Lauderdale


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