UA students struggle with food insecurity
Emily Carlisle, a studio art junior, subsists off the food she receives from Campus Pantry, a nonprofit organization that helps provide free food to the campus community.
Sometimes Rachel Garcia* must choose between paying this month’s rent or purchasing food. On days the UA pathology graduate student spends working in an on-campus lab, sometimes for 10 to 12 hours, she occasionally has trouble concentrating because of hunger.
“I don’t have enough time in my day to earn enough money and earn my cost of living and afford to really eat,” Garcia said. “The first thing to go was books for classes, but then after that I couldn’t afford to buy food; that was going to have to go, too.”
Garcia is one of many students at the UA dealing with a lack of access to enough affordable, nutritious food. Food insecurity is slowly increasing statewide, rising from 12.5 percent from 2000-2002 to 14.9 percent from 2010-2012.
Food insecurity is not tracked specifically among college students, but a survey conducted from November to December 2013 by Jake Collins, a UA public health graduate student, found that of 140 UA students and staff, more than 60 percent had been food insecure in the last six months.
A study published in the “Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior” in January found that at Western Oregon University, 59 percent of students were food insecure at some point during the previous year.
“It shouldn’t be a thing that you have to stress about when you’re a college student,” Collins said. “You have so many other things on your plate that food shouldn’t be an issue. My research was aiming to bring that awareness and hopefully get some more institutional recognition.”
For college students, a lot of the issues with food security boil down to access to and the availability of healthy foods, said Deb Robinson, chief for the office of community innovation at the Arizona Department of Health Services.
Campus pantries, farmers markets and food assistance programs are only some of the options students can use to help combat food insecurity. Although a stigma still exists around programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which provides for low-income families, Robinson said a positive sign is that Arizona SNAP participation was up to 79 percent of eligible households in 2011, a 14 percent increase since 2009.
“More people are actually using that avenue to gain better food security, so I think that’s a positive step,” Robinson said. “It’s definitely a good avenue for college students to check out, especially when they don’t have a significant income or have financial strains with school.”
Obstacles to receiving SNAP assistance include the time-consuming process of getting enrolled and a lack of awareness that one might qualify for food assistance, according to Michael McDonald, CEO of Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona.
“There’s a lot of education and outreach that needs to be done for SNAP,” McDonald said. “We’re just not getting the word out fast enough and educating people that they very well might be qualified for the benefit.”
When it comes to those who do apply, the staff often sees clients who have a desire to be self-sufficient and don’t want to take handouts, McDonald added.
For John Smith*, a graduate assistant and doctoral candidate, the narrative that people receiving food assistance are lazy and not looking for a job rings false. He said his decision to apply for the program in October 2012, two months after starting at the UA, was essential to provide for his two children under 3 years old, his wife and himself.
“That’s an internal battle that you need to fight,” Smith said. “It’s not as hard of a battle for most people, because once you have a family that you’re supporting there’s nothing you won’t do. Feeling a little awkward or embarrassed is a small price to pay for maintaining security.”
For Smith and his wife, a stay-at-home mother, shopping requires complex strategizing.
Throughout the week, his wife makes a list of necessary food items. Then the couple calculates how to combine the $200 in food stamps they receive each month with “extreme couponing.”
“There are those months where you’ve spent what you’ve budgeted, so then you’re really trying to manipulate what exists in your pantry to make things work until the next month,” Smith said. “Once you start going over that, you really think about, ‘How do we make the food stretch? What do I have to not buy this month in order for us to be comfortable in our stock of food?’ It’s a horrifyingly destabilizing feeling.”
Student Assistance, run through the Dean of Students Office, works with 10 to 20 students a semester who are dealing with financial and food insecurity, according to Katherine Zilmer, senior coordinator for Student Assistance.
For these students, money is going toward housing or tuition, which doesn’t leave much left over to pay for food, Zilmer said. Zilmer added that she believes the number of students dealing with food insecurity is much higher than what UA officials are seeing.
“I think it’s an issue that students are embarrassed about and that they don’t want to talk about because they see a lot of their peers not having to face these daily challenges or struggles,” Zilmer said. “I’m confident that it’s much bigger than what we’re hearing about and that’s why it’s so important to get the word out that we can work with these students and there are things we can do to help them.”
If Student Assistance staff find out about or hear from a student who is in need of assistance, they will meet with them in person to review their needs and offer access to resources, such as the UA Campus Pantry, a nonprofit organization that provides free food to the campus.
“I don’t think we’re ever going to solve that problem; we’re seeing it nationally,” Zilmer said. “But if we can help our students know that it’s OK and it’s OK to ask for help when you need it, we can help those students achieve their goals.”
When Emily Carlisle, a studio art junior, has run out of food, she’s asked her roommate to buy her dinner or relied on her boyfriend’s food supply. Carlisle, who comes from a single-mother home, cannot get a job to cover food costs because of her inflexible schedule.
“There have been a couple of situations where I literally didn’t have any food left to eat,” Carlisle said. “I have been given a lot of opportunities and I’m really lucky to be here, but there are still problems I struggle with. I struggle to get enough food to eat.”
Carlisle, a vegetarian, turned to Campus Pantry, which started in 2012, to help supply her with the foods necessary to get by.
Two times a month on a Friday, an average of 30-50 students and staff come to the pantry distribution to collect food they need, such as canned vegetables, soups and other nonperishables.
As long as they have a CatCard, attendees can collect a certain amount of food each visit.
“When I first started coming here it was to stock up on foods I didn’t have, but now I literally have to come here to get the food I need in order to survive,” Carlisle said, “which is kind of unfortunate because I’ve never thought of myself as being of a lower socioeconomic status, but it’s definitely turned out to be that way.”
Michelle Sun, the adviser for Campus Pantry and a graduate community director for Residence Life, has worked with students who have gone days without a meal and rely on campus events with free food to sustain themselves.
“The current stereotype of college and attending a university is that it’s this big privilege for students and no one really thinks about the everyday living that has to go into a student getting their education,” Sun said. “Students are having to make decisions on, ‘Am I going to buy my books for this month or pay my rent at the first of the month, or am I going to use that money to buy groceries and eat on a regular basis?’”
Sun said she hopes to continue combating food insecurity through Campus Pantry.
“Everyone comes with different privileges and resources at their disposal,” Sun said, “but if you’re coming to college and you’re not able to eat on a regular basis, then that puts you at such a disadvantage to everyone else in your classroom to perform well and be successful.”
Before Sara Adams*, a chemistry junior, came to the final Campus Pantry food distribution of the semester on Friday, she only had a few cans left in her stockpile and wasn’t sure what she would do next. Adams didn’t even have a can opener to open the few items she did have.
“I didn’t know how I was going to get food this week,” Adams said. “[Campus Pantry] just went above and beyond what I could have expected. This is the most amazing thing.”
For more information about UA Campus Pantry, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or the UA Campus Pantry Facebook page. For Student Assistance, contact the Dean of Students Office at 520-621-9866.
_*Names changed by request of the students _