Guest Letter: Ramen and Bologna Sandwiches: The College Diet of the Past
I grew up in Bullhead City, Arizona — a city that boasts an average family income of nearly $10,000 less than the national average. What this means is that many students rely on free or reduced-cost breakfast and lunch at their high school, middle school or elementary school. As a result, students are guaranteed at least two meals a day — even if the pizza is lukewarm and bland at best. Once students graduate, meals are no longer guaranteed and the costs of living are significantly higher than they were before students move from their childhood homes. Even if students have some money for their living costs, many are not financially literate, preventing them from effectively budgeting for their future.
In the state of Arizona, around 23% of children grew up in food-insecure homes as of 2018 — a staggering number that is 5% higher than that of the national average. Even more concerning is that at the university level, around 42% of students are food insecure, according to a survey by the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice. That same survey cites that 46% of college students claim to be housing insecure during their time at university. Basic needs insecurity is a problem at the university level, but there is a way that these institutions can begin to address it. Before I jump into that, it is critical to understand what exactly basic needs insecurity is.
Basic needs encompass far more than just food and housing. The term takes into consideration other important aspects of life such as mental well-being, community, safety, financial support and quality education. These items are critical and are all interconnected. For example, individuals lacking financial support likely lack food or housing, increasing their stress and deteriorating their mental well-being while intrinsically decreasing their academic success. These items are also massive barriers to entry for lower-income students, not only for their entry into university, but also for graduating. Especially today, when more and more low-income students are entering the university system, it is imperative for schools to create systems which offer equal opportunities for low-income students. An essential part of that system is the support of basic needs security. For far too long, the stigma of college students surviving on three meals of ramen noodles and bologna sandwiches has prevented large-scale action to help lower socioeconomic students from succeeding as best they can. Interestingly, a large proportion of this stigma comes from a general misunderstanding of the issue.
Many people question how students who are eligible for Federal Pell Grants and taking out loans still have difficulty with affording college and basic needs. Put simply, the Pell Grant only covers about a third of these costs and students cheap out on food and housing to decrease the amount of debt they accumulate from furthering their education. Further criticism includes claims that students should be able to work while they are students and thus afford housing and food. However, this is not the case. In surveys done by the University of California, students who worked more than 20 hours a week reported the most complications with basic needs insecurity.
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So, what is the path to improvement? Let’s take a look at initiatives in this same space across the country. For example, initiatives in California and Alabama, employ one particular resource in their approaches to addressing basic needs insecurity — data. Surveying their student body in an adequate manner allows the formation of committees with various stakeholders, creating data-driven solutions to the large issue that is basic needs insecurity. Each campus created some type of basic-need coalition composed of different experts in this space, whether it be mental health counselors, resident housing representatives or campus pantry workers. This system leverages the expertise and knowledge in each one of these divisions, encouraging an interdisciplinary and accurate approach to solving the issue of basic needs insecurity. This bottom-up approach allows for direct transparency into the basic needs issues present on their campuses, creating a pipeline for addressing these issues. Through the use of advocacy, these initiatives have already culminated in significant benefits toward eradicating basic needs insecurity. For example, at the University of California, the creation of their "Special Committee on Basic Needs" has garnered a budget of $15,000,000 across the system for basic needs centers at each university. The money will be used across each university to create an infrastructure allowing for sustainable solutions to eradicate basic need insecurity such as increasing the enrollment of students in CalFresh (California’s version of Arizona’s Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program), funding their campus pantries or funding staff for a new all-encompassing basic needs center.
The benefits of creating a system like this are massive. Investing in basic needs is an investment in people of color — who disproportionately represent Pell Grant recipients and basic needs insecure students. It is an investment in the dreams of our marginalized students, making college a reality for them. Further, shifting the socioeconomic demographic of our university graduates to match that of the state has significant economic benefits, both fiscally — from increased tax revenue to the state — and socially — through less dependence on welfare, improved public health outcomes and decreased incarceration rates. Particularly during the COVID-19 disruption, students who were once basic needs secure, may now be concerned about where their next meal will come from due to job loss on campus, changing estimated family contribution or any other number of reasons during this difficult time. With all this being said, fellow Arizona Student Regent Nikhil Dave and I are proud to announce that this year, the Arizona Board of Regents will be creating a Basic Needs Taskforce to address the issues of basic needs insecurity across all three of our state’s institutions. As a system, we have an obligation to provide opportunities for all of our students; we have an obligation to help all of our students reach their full potential regardless of their socioeconomic status; and we have an obligation to ensure that we are doing our best to address basic needs of all students on our campus, whether that means leaving no student hungry or homeless or addressing the mental health crisis that many youth face today.
Till next month,