Unseen, unfed: food insecurity on campus

Food+Pantry+Director+Dawn+Longfellow+organizes+items+at+the+Student+Food+Pantry+on+Friday.

Ryan Ash

Food Pantry Director Dawn Longfellow organizes items at the Student Food Pantry on Friday.

By Zainab Qureshi, Staff Writer

Understanding the problem

When Kenji Pantin was an undergrad at the University of Central Florida, she couldn’t afford a meal plan. Despite her scholarships, there just wasn’t enough money. Her mom encouraged her to take out a loan to purchase the recommended meal plan. But it was 2013, a couple years after the recession, and Pantin saw the people around her were still struggling with debt. So she decided against taking out the loan and utilized food pantries, soup kitchens and other resources on campus to help save money and keep her from slipping into an unstable financial situation.  

Fast forward to today, Pantin is a recent doctoral graduate in LAS who experienced food insecurity throughout her time at the University.

On top of rising tuition and housing costs, miscellaneous fees and textbooks for class, food can be the first expense to be reduced for students. 

Food insecurity refers to the lack of or inconsistent access to healthy and balanced meals due to limited financial resources. On a campus where there are enough financial resources for constant innovation and construction, it may seem far-fetched that anyone could be left hungry, but food insecurity affects more college students than one might think. While the issue operates at a large scale, it is also surrounded by a substantial lack of understanding about what food insecurity means and what it looks like in communities. (To clear up some misconceptions, food insecurity is not the inability to eat due to a lack of time. When an individual has classes back to back and ends up skipping a meal, it is not a financial issue — rather a scheduling one.)  

One in six people on the University of Illinois’ campus are food insecure, according to a study co-written by Brenna Ellison, associate professor in ACES. Ellison and her team sent out a randomized online survey to 4,000 undergraduate students, evenly divided between each year in college. They used questions from the United States Department of Agriculture website as well as questions capturing the participants’ socioeconomic and sociodemographic profile. The USDA questions asked surveyees to self-assess their own attitudes and behaviors in regards to “food and financial resources in a series of items that increased in severity,” according to the study. If participants answered positively to three or more questions, they were considered to be experiencing some level of food insecurity. 

Ellison recognizes the data collection was imperfect — this data only represents those undergraduate students who responded to the survey. A randomized sample of the total student population would have been preferred and thus more accurate. However, this collection method and how students answered the survey prompted Ellison and her team to rethink the framing of the questions. 

“Many of the questions have a ‘money’ component to them, and for a lot of college students, money can come from a lot of different places,” she said. “You might get money from your parents, from a job, from scholarships and grants, or you might have a meal plan — which isn’t money but is kind of like money. What we found when we were interviewing students is that they all interpret the questions just a little bit differently.” 

The discrepancies in how students interpreted these questions indicate large-scale confusion about food insecurity. The public’s general ignorance about food insecurity perpetuates the issue further and ultimately hurts the people most affected. People who don’t know what food insecurity means aren’t going to know to look for resources around campus or elsewhere. 

Jessica Delost, the campus and community connector at University Place Christian Church, helps coordinate free, buffet-style dinners every Wednesday. Both community and campus members are in attendance, and the turnout is often around 100 people each week. During Delost’s first semester in the position, she worked with a social work class at the University to create a pamphlet of local resources for food insecurity. Delost and the class tried to create and distribute surveys to people in attendance at their dinners but weren’t seeing results. 

“What we found out through that process is that a lot of the time, especially in communities that need social welfare, they get tokenized as ‘that group,’” Delost said. “(Many) of their interactions at that point focus on a single problem that they have and not who they are, and it’s really hard for them to answer those questions.”

This creates yet another problem for researchers trying to understand food insecurity: Gathering specifics is difficult if the researchers are seen as outsiders who haven’t gotten to know the community first. 

Pantin has tried to close that gap in the community. She taught PSYC 201: Introduction to Social Psychology while at the University, and often shared a tab of resources with her students. This tab included all the food pantries and soup kitchens she could find close to campus. One of Pantin’s personal favorites was Jubilee Cafe because of the restaurant setup. She liked that it didn’t feel like a soup kitchen, making her “feel more like a person.” 

Among Pantin’s list of favorites was also Wesley Food Pantry. It was there that Pantin  surprisingly met a friend who was also experiencing food insecurity.

Dawn Longfellow, the director of the Wesley Food Pantry, is passionate about solving food insecurity. She interacts with both locals and students who are food insecure, and she brings up yet another problem that comes with trying to mitigate the issue. According to Longfellow, the way community members talk to each other about food insecurity is different from how students talk to each other about food insecurity.

“The community of people who use food pantries are filled with folks telling each other about places to go,” Longfellow said. “With students, because they’re feeling so stigmatized, there’s not that word of mouth because people aren’t talking to each other.” 

Addressing the stigma  

A big part of the problem of food insecurity has to do with the stigma it carries, especially in a campus setting. The lack of awareness on college campuses combined with the psychological anxieties makes the issue that much more complex. 

Jessica Delost, the campus and community connector at University Place Christian Church, feels as though “people are often more open about homelessness than they are about food insecurity.” Delost mentions she’s much more aware of the attendees who have experienced homelessness than those who are food insecure.

Delost often wonders whether the reason she has so many volunteers at the community dinners is because she makes sure they are fed afterward. 

Part of the reason the stigma around food insecurity persists is because the problem is easy to hide. And not just from friends, teachers and peers — but from family members too. 

Pantin comes from a single-parent household, where her mom worked a lot to support them both. Years later, Pantin learned that while she was in middle school, her mom didn’t eat.

Taylor Chism, senior in FAA, also knows what it’s like to keep food insecurity a secret. Coming from a middle to lower class family in Joliet, no one talked money in Chism’s home. To this day, Chism still doesn’t really talk about finances outside her close friends. 

“I don’t bring (my financial situation) up in class or to my teachers,” she said. “I try to keep it more personal.” 

Growing up, Chism had limited financial resources, so she didn’t always have access to healthy food. Her meals often consisted of PB&Js and hotdogs as a kid. For Chism, trying to institute healthy changes as an adult has been challenging.

“The first time I went grocery shopping I had a panic attack in the grocery store because I was freaked out,” she said. “I try to make better choices than what I grew up with because being in college has taught me a lot about health. Not having a car is hard, and County Market is so expensive.”

Now, when she goes shopping for food, she often finds herself weighing her health and her budget side by side. Knowing that produce expires much quicker than frozen food and ramen, she halfheartedly sticks to the inside half of the grocery store, typically where the nonperishable items are located. When she does venture to the other side, she has to ask herself questions like “Am I going to risk getting this?’ Am I actually going to eat this?’” 

Ben Joselyn, a coordinator at the Community Learning Lab, has been involved in multiple ventures to aid in the food insecurity epidemic across the community. He said the lack of understanding about food insecurity comes from a lack of understanding about poverty at large, saying “money is equated to worth.” He went on to explain how financial instability can be connected to feelings of unworthiness due to societally bred standards, manifesting anxiety and causing other mental health problems for those facing impoverished conditions.

The stigmatization comes from the fact that not having enough is equated to not being enough,” he said. “If we’re not doing well (financially) then we tend to think there is something wrong with us inherently. People are unwilling to talk about food insecurity and not having enough because it is widely viewed by society as flaws with the individual.”

Joselyn further explained how food insecurity falls under the larger umbrella of poverty. 

“We place poverty and broad societal problems on the backs of individuals, and we believe that if people are poor it has something to do with their character,” he said. “Until we solve that, it’s going to be very hard to convince people to talk about their personal situation.” 

Studies have proven the benefits of eating while studying. The pressures of school combined with lack of energy contributes to more physical and mental stress on students. These students can be caught up in mere survival, Joselyn said.

“We find that people who are poor do worse in school because they’re looking at solving their immediate situation,” he said. “The subjects they’re studying aren’t as interesting because they have more pressing problems.”

Joselyn himself was food insecure as an undergraduate student at Evergreen State College in Washington. From his experience, he knows how not having enough food affects academic performance and mental health, which he says later “leads to the inability to acquire better opportunities.” 

Chism currently lives with anxiety about having enough resources to sustain herself. Growing up, she lived “paycheck to paycheck.” Now as a college student, she is constantly thinking about how she is going to support herself. 

“I’ve always felt, even when I was a child, that I’m not going to have enough,” she said. “I try to save as much as I can because I feel like I’m not going to have it the next day.” 

Students like Chism and Pantin have more responsibilities than other students. 

“I didn’t receive any financial assistance from my family,” Pantin said. “If anything, I financially assist them, and so I can only imagine for other people who may not have the scholarships or who had to take out loans how stressful this can be.” 

For those attending a university where students come from different backgrounds and financial situations, being food insecure can feel isolating at times. Simply put, you can’t always tell when someone doesn’t have enough to eat, but people who don’t have enough to eat may be acutely aware of how often and how much others spend their money. This can contribute to the stigma surrounding food insecurity and make asking for help even harder.

“Being at this school, (it feels like) there are so many rich people. Everyone is buying Starbucks every day and going out to (The) Red Lion and spending $20–40 every night, and that’s not really me,” Chism said. 

The stigma also fosters feelings of shame that these students have to carry with them. 

“Even now I don’t want a lot of people to attach my name to my face (and know this is about me),” Pantin said when referring to being interviewed for this article. 

Seeking help  

Taylor Chism, senior in FAA, was on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program program during her sophomore and junior years but was no longer eligible after her job wages increased to $11 an hour. Kenji Pantin, recent doctoral graduate in LAS, made $18,000 a year from teaching at the University, and also applied for SNAP when she first came here but was denied due to her income.

Students at four-year universities are eligible for the SNAP program if they are under 18 years old as well as if they are over the age of 50, work approximately 20 hours a week or work a federal work-study approved job along with other instances regarding family situations, according to their website. The University must notify you if you are eligible to apply, but without University notification, an individual is unable to gain access to SNAP benefits. For Chism, she isn’t able to work the 20 hours due to school, so the amount of money she earns isn’t enough to cover groceries and bills. 

Chism is receiving some financial help from her family now, but there were days where she ate less to ensure she would have enough food for the upcoming week. On school days, she often waited until dinner to eat. This left her feeling frustrated and unfocused. 

“It made me miserable, my stomach would be growling during class, I would just be thinking about food,” Chism said. “Half the time I’m not even using the textbooks that I skipped a meal to buy, so it’s just like, ‘why did I do that?’”

It took Chism and Kenji Pantin, doctoral graduate in LAS, being students at the University for multiple years before they finally were made aware of food pantries and other resources last fall. 

Before coming to Wesley Food Pantry, Pantin purchased $3 bean soup mixes. Making one pack at the beginning of the week would last her four to five meals. Last semester was the first semester in her three years here that she had visited a food pantry. Pantin wasn’t aware of the food insecurity statistics at the University before the Wesley Food Pantry’s student organization brought it to her attention. While she is thankful to have had these options available to her when she was on campus, she feels guilty for utilizing these resources. 

“I have this mentality that because of where I come from and how easy it is for people to just slip into debt or financial struggles, a piece of me does feel guilty for going to a food pantry because I’m not poor, but I feel like I’m close,” she said. “(I don’t want) to be a burden, whether that be (on the) pantry or my family.”

This is a recurring theme in the discussion about food insecurity. Many feel as though they are not food insecure enough to utilize a pantry. Ben Joselyn, a coordinator at the Community Learning Lab, recalls similar feelings when he was food insecure in college.

“I felt guilty for a long time,” he said. “I’ve always known that I am not the worst off. I’ve never been in dire poverty, but (at the same time) I’ve not had enough.”

Not only does the stigma prevent people from talking to each other, but it also perpetuates misconception: what a person who is food insecure looks like. 

“Students tend to feel that ‘someone else needs this more than I do,’” Longfellow said. 

This misconception is one of the reasons that the Wesley Food Pantry started their Fridays for Friends pantry, when the pantry is open just to students to help alleviate the intimidation that may come along with the larger Thursday pantry. A student can walk in, show their i-card and take what they need from what is available with no questions asked.

There are many places to find resources for someone dealing with food insecurity on campus if one knows where to look and who to ask. But the stigma surrounding food insecurity often prevents students from talking to one another and, as a result, prevents students from sharing resources. Consequently, students often think County Market is their only option. 

Breaking the cycle

Wedged between Stoughton Street and Fourth Street, the County Market’s location, 24-hour accessibility and lack of competition is why many students shop there. For those who do not have cars on campus or who are not on a meal plan, reasonably priced groceries can be hard to come by. While some may catch a ride with friends, many students trek across the community to visit out-of-the-way, more affordable grocery stores, like Walmart and Aldi. With public transport routes that don’t run as frequently to places outside campus, this can be arduous, regardless if you’re on foot or bus. It can be so taxing that some opt to eat out, which can also strain bank accounts. On a campus covering upward of approximately 3.6 miles, it is a wonder why there are not more affordable options to purchase food. News broke last month that Trader Joes is considering C-U to open up shop, but unless Trader Joe’s  builds on campus, there are no other commercial businesses to pick up groceries at an affordable price.

Even those who are on meal plans are not exempt from food insecurity, Longfellow said. She had thought freshmen in particular didn’t struggle with food accessibility. 

“I actually spoke to somebody this Quad Day who talked about (having to) spend time with their family over the summer (to) decide what was the least amount of food she could eat to get the lowest food plan cost as part of her tuition,” she said.

The rising cost of tuition in addition to the cost of living means some families are choosing to cut back on food budgets, regardless of how much money their students might actually need for food. Food insecurity touches students across grade levels. In the case a student comes from a food-insecure household, the issue doesn’t simply stop when they enter college; it follows them there. 

The University has made some headway in solving the issue, like with the recent implementation of the tuition-free program, Illinois Commitment. Commitment gives students who might not have otherwise been able to afford tuition an opportunity to attend the University but falls short of giving them resources and other help they might need to navigate campus. 

Ben Joselyn, a coordinator at the Community Learning Lab,  believes the University and surrounding town have an obligation to help relieve food insecurity. 

“We have this commitment to free tuition,” he said. “Let’s start aspiring toward free meals. There’s ways to provide societal good, and if you can dream big this is the kind of place that can also do an experiment about it.”

Longfellow agrees the University could be more helpful, especially compared to other nearby institutions. 

“We don’t get a lot of cooperation from the University, perhaps because it is a huge entity, but perhaps also that they may not want to admit how big of a problem (food insecurity) is,” she said. 

This is in opposition to the administration of Parkland College, which Longfellow said has been extremely invested in working with Wesley Food Pantry to tackle food insecurity across the community and attempt to better address the needs of their students. 

The University offers a couple of locations on its websites to highlight resources in the case of food insecurity or financial instability. However, the promotion of a base-level understanding of food insecurity is seldom seen on these websites. 

The effects of the linked resources and lists of food pantries are lost; without generating an awareness of the problem itself, students don’t know to look for appropriate solutions. Instead, students take other measures, such as eating less. 

Taylor Chism and Kenji Pantin have been able to improve both their situations. After last semester, Chism reached out to her parents for additional financial support. Pantin was able to save enough money to get settled back home in Florida after graduating. Not only is Pantin eating better, but her mom is too. 

“I want to see more information or creative ways to educate students about the different resources on campus.” said Pantin. “I feel like a problem with university-life, is that there’s so much out there and you don’t know what you don’t know.” 

There is hope for other students seeking to break the cycle and find financial stability — Joselyn is no longer food insecure. He said the food insecurity he faced in college has given him a new perspective about financial security, mental health and quality of life. 

“The more I look back on what a role money has played in my life, the more I blame my struggles with mental health (that came from) not having enough to get by,” Joselyn said. 

Joselyn acknowledges being a white man made it easier for him than others to become financially secure, but he recognizes large-scale societal change has to be made for people facing all forms of poverty. 

“I don’t believe it’s anything inherent of my work ethic or the other pieces; it has a lot more to do with where I was born and who that brought me into contact with that has led to my eventual success,” he said. “That’s not the way we want the world to be. You want to build systems that allow everybody to be successful.”

Author’s Note: 

While working on this story, I interviewed many students who are food insecure. However, very few were comfortable going on record saying so. Because I was having a hard time sourcing, I started asking students the same USDA questions Ellison and her team asked in their study. When I told some students they were on the spectrum for food insecurity, they disagreed and stated that they didn’t identify with the term despite the results of the USDA survey. 

The stigma surrounding food insecurity is severe. It prevents students from asking for help and utilizing resources. 

Resources:

Wesley Food Pantry
     Thursday hours: 5-7 p.m.
     Friday (student only) hours: 1-3 p.m.
UniPlace Community Dinners and Pantry
     First Tuesday of every month pantry: 10 a.m. – 12 p.m.
    Wednesday hours: 6-7 p.m.
Jubilee Cafe
    Monday hours: 5-6:30 p.m.
Newman Shares:
   Every second, third and fourth Wednesday of the month: 5-7 p.m.