Students living on campus struggle to find groceries
Sarah Chee, a retailing and consumer sciences junior, takes a break from her summer courses to grab some dinner at the Student Union Memorial Center early Monday evening. With no grocery store on campus or within reasonable walking distance, many students resort to a diet of fast food.
UA students are having a hard time buying groceries around campus. Some contribute it to a lack of money or transportation, but the reality is that sufficient food options are simply inaccessible. The UA campus is considered a food desert.
A food desert can be described as an area in the United States with limited access to affordable and nutritious food, particularly such an area composed of predominantly lower-income neighborhoods and communities.
The UA, along with much of downtown including the Congress Street entertainment district, is considered a food desert because 67.8 percent of the 366 total households in the area are without vehicles and are more than half a mile from a supermarket, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Many students living around campus do not have the resources to go grocery shopping.
“We have a serious problem in that the University of Arizona, while it has done wonderful things all across the country, hasn’t taken care of the hunger and poverty in our own city,” said Gary Nabhan, a research social scientist at the Southwest Studies Center. “There are many students who are either on welfare or are in jobs where they’re just breaking even and they’re really at risk in terms of their own food security.”
With the shortfall of grocery stores around campus, students have resorted to the many on-campus food options at the UA, using school provided meal plans that range from $2,500 to $3,500 throughout the academic school year.
The Student Union Memorial Center offers more than 35 different eateries situated throughout the campus to meet the dining needs of students.
From cafeteria dining to national franchises and brands, the student union is the primary destination for most on-campus meals with restaurant options ranging from Burger King, Panda Express and Chick-fil-A, to healthier alternatives such as Core and IQ Fresh.
“I think they [the UA] have a lot of good options, the only thing is it is expensive, which is understandable but there are some things I think students can get for a reasonable price,” said Stephanie Choi, a UA sophomore and member of Students for Sustainability.
Students who eat exclusively on campus are faced with the problem of choosing between cost or nutritional value of their daily meals. Many students sacrifice the quality of nutritious meals by electing to go with less nutritious, cost-friendly options on campus, a scenario that is routine among college students who don’t regularly shop for groceries.
“When you have a food desert where students are living, there are fewer choices of good nutritious food that can help them excel at what they’re trying to do, whether it’s athletics or academics,” Nabhan said.
Like many other students living on campus, Choi is aware of the inconvenience of obtaining fresh produce and even said that on some weekends, she would often bike to her brother’s house off campus to use his car in order to go grocery shopping.
“Safeway is definitely bikeable,” she said. “It’s not the safest thing, but my ideal situation would be able to walk or bike to a grocery store from campus.”
Actions are being made around the downtown area to try and make quality produce more attainable. The easiest solution: Bring the supermarket to campus.
Places like Time Market and Rincon Market are receiving more locally-grown vegetables and fruits, often picked that very same day, and putting them into the hands of low-income residents in areas that lack quality food options, Nabhan said. He also said that there was an increase in fresh produce food trucks popping up in the same areas as well.
As part of the Students for Sustainability, Choi is involved in the Food For All Committee where she said students are pushing hard for the idea of the UA setting up a farmers’ market stand once a week and providing students with local produce on campus that they can purchase for a reasonable price.
“It’s definitely the way to go and I think it will happen in the next couple of years while I’m here,” Choi said.
The USDA’s Economic Research Service estimates that 23.5 million people live in food deserts. More than half of those people (13.5 million) are low income.