High prices, little support create campus hunger problem ‘nobody’ expected
Accounting senior Dalinda Oliver had to make a choice between meal plan or classes when she moved to Bayou Oaks.
As a freshman, Oliver loved the convenience and variety that came with her meal plan. Like any other on campus resident, she was required to purchase one. As soon as she moved slightly off campus to Bayou Oaks before spring of her sophomore year, Oliver was forced to cancel her now-optional meal plan to afford classes.
“Once I let (the meal plan) go, I actually tried to get food stamps, but sometimes I’m not able to qualify because I don’t work enough,” Oliver said. “I only work around my school schedule.”
Oliver, and many other students, face food insecurity while they’re on campus. Over 50 percent of UH students in a poll by The Cougar said they have avoided eating on campus because options were too expensive.
This fits the definition of food insecurity as not having adequate food even for limited periods of time.
Many commuter students and even those living on campus forgo meal plans in an effort to cut costs and save money. On-campus restaurants and convenience stores, then, are often the remaining options.
“I basically had to choose between having a meal plan or having classes,” Oliver said. “I got rid of my meal plan because it was like $2,000.”
Many people on campus are aware of the problem of food insecurity among UH students and are actively combating it, like Raven Jones.
Jones is the director of the Urban Experience Program, which helps first-generation, foster students and minority students succeed through one-on-one programming and planning initiatives. One of the many roadblocks they eliminate is food insecurity.
Jones said that when students walk into her office and say they’re hungry, she gives them meal cards that are good for one swipe into a dining hall.
“When you think about food insecurity, you have to think about all the issues involved,” Jones said. “Our program is holistic, so we look at the personal, the academic, the financial, the career and the civic leadership engagement. Those pieces have to work together.”
Auxiliary Services staff donates the meal cards in bundles of seven or 14, so students who come to the office can receive a little beyond a temporary fix. UEP also offers snacks in the office and has helped eligible students apply for SNAP benefits, the program that used to be called food stamps.
Assistant professor Daphne Hernandez, who has a doctorate in developmental and educational psychology and works with Jones to tackle food insecurity, said that SNAP benefits are restrictive.
“Students are required to work 20 hours a week, and there’s some other criteria that they have to meet,” Hernandez said. “It’s really hard to be a full-time student, get really good grades and meet those requirements. It’s really not a program designed for college students.”
Hernandez said there is a severe lack of federal programs aimed specifically at food-insecure college students. Primary and secondary school programs provide free breakfast and lunch to needy students, but eligibility for these programs ends when they graduate from high school.
“If they were on these programs in high school, it’s not like they graduate and become food secure. That’s where our problem lies — there’s no real transition,” Hernandez said. “When they do make the transition into college, it’s not like they’re transitioning into a higher income. They’re actually losing income.”
The problem of food insecurity isn’t exclusive to students from low-income households. Jones called the largest group experiencing food insecurity the “middle squeeze” — an area students fall into when their parents make enough money to disqualify them for full financial aid or federal benefits, but not enough to cover the costs of college.
“We try to satisfy the short term and the long term, to make sure that students are healthy and are continually eating. I think our long-term solution is going to be our (dining hall) swipes,” Jones said.
Food insecurity is not a new issue at UH, but no one has been paying attention. Hernandez said that most food insecurity research was focused on children and mothers or just adults in general, “but not the college crowd.”
“Nobody has ever thought that college students could be insecure. It just hasn’t been an area of concern, until now,” Hernandez said. “It’s coming out as an issue.”
Not only are campus leaders at UH becoming more aware of the problem — it’s also receiving a national spotlight.
Four college campus-based organizations published a combined study that found that 48 percent of students interviewed were food insecure. The groups, College and University Food Bank Alliance, the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness, the Student Government Resource Center and the Student Public Interest Research, polled students at 26 four-year universities and eight community colleges.
“The thing with this issue is that it isn’t really very well understood. People haven’t been talking about it or looking at the issue of student hunger for very long,” said James Dubick, organizer for the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness. “We wanted to understand the issue better and we wanted to confirm that it was really an issue across different school types, across different regions.”
Dubick said that the universities they looked at were mostly public. To conduct the study, they made use of student volunteers, who simply polled students as they walked to class.
“Our hope is to get university programs to actually start tackling student food insecurity among college students as part of their own research,” Dubick said.
At the University, UEP and a few other organizations — including Campus Ministries, whose members provide free lunch once a week — are working together to fight the problem.
Jones and Hernandez are in the planning stages of performing a formal study of UH student food insecurity. It’s an important issue to solve because, as Oliver said, it’s hard to focus when you’re hungry.
Oliver goes to class and works at the University. Without a meal plan as well as affordable and healthy food options on campus, Oliver said that she does not eat at UH, which is “every day from 9 to 5.”
“When I’m hungry in class I’m not focusing, or when I get out of class and I’m hungry, I don’t have the initiative to study because all I want to do is eat,” Oliver said. “It’s hard to focus in class when your stomach is growling.”