Hunger is part of the student experience, but officials must remedy the issue

Ashley Atilano, Ben Yoxall, Chris Jeong, Grant Nilson, Hannah Grosvenor, Martin Yerovi and Saru Duckworth are members of The Store’s 2018 executive board.

It’s no secret that GW has a food insecurity problem. In fact, 39 percent of students surveyed have experienced low or very low levels of food security in the past year, according to a survey by the Wisconsin HOPE Lab. Similarly, GW asked graduating seniors one question on their experience with food insecurity in 2017 and found that 24 percent of graduating seniors reported eating less because they did not have enough money for food multiple times per week in the past year. Meanwhile, membership of The Store – GW’s student-run food pantry – keeps growing, already on track to exceed the more than 850 shoppers registered at the end of last spring.

Measuring hunger at GW is not easy, and constraints like self-selecting bias and limited participation can affect these surveys. But that doesn’t mean these reports aren’t providing real insight into how students experience hunger. It means we need to increase the sense of urgency felt on our campus to understand the magnitude and root causes of this issue.

Of the 43,000 students who responded to the survey nationally, an average of 36 percent of students reported low or very low food security levels. This makes it likely that the 39 percent of students who reported experiencing food insecurity at GW – a school that was more expensive than its peers in most affordability categories in 2018 – is providing more accurate insight than we may want to believe.

But isn’t it natural at an expensive university that students should struggle to afford food? Shouldn’t students take financial responsibility for their decision to attend an institution like GW? Aren’t students merely experiencing anxiety or stress related to food?

From what we’ve learned in our three years running a food pantry for students, these common assumptions don’t seem accurate or fair. Food insecurity is not a new issue for students, as a 1995 GW alumnus shared at our food insecurity town hall last month. That doesn’t mean that experiencing food insecurity has to be a natural or normal part of the student experience. Research shows that food insecurity is directly correlated with lower grades and completion persistence in college. Food insecurity is a direct threat to student success, persistence, retention and graduation. Addressing food insecurity is a critical part of the mission and goal of an institution like GW.

In addition, the USDA-approved module used to measure food insecurity in the HOPE Lab survey specifically accounts for students who are only worried or anxious about food, to ensure they are not identified as food insecure. Conflating student hunger with anxiety is demeaning and condescending, especially when food insecurity is already stigmatized.

Students dealing with food insecurity are often patching together financial resources, working multiple jobs and taking on other financial burdens to receive their education. As one member of our board pointed out, it can feel exhausting to hear GW welcome students from diverse backgrounds in admissions materials, but then not provide adequate resources to sustain a positive experience for low-income students once enrolled. If we believe that hard work and talent should be rewarded with a chance to attend college, we cannot restrict access to only students whose families can afford it by failing to support students of all economic backgrounds.

Even though our experience tells us initially to reject these common assumptions, we try to consider them with an open mind because the fact is there are many serious gaps in research into student hunger at GW.

We need to be doing more as a university to generate rigorous data around food insecurity, dining services and the student experience. The University recently partnered with the Disney Institute to survey employees about University culture, but has yet to announce substantial research efforts to understand why students may be facing hunger. But robust research is vital, if we are to measure, for example, whether the University’s recent decision to increase the amount of money on GWorld dining plans has had a significant impact on reducing hunger or instead made affordability even more challenging for students.

Students have taken initiative to start collaborative research on hunger on campus. The recently established Student Association task force on food insecurity has brought together students, faculty, staff and administrators from all corners of GW who agree that we need more data around this issue to inform change. Furthermore, the support shown by the staff in the Center for Student Engagement has been invaluable for the continued success and expansion of The Store. These are strong steps in the right direction that can be strengthened by top officials actively following their progress, supporting them with access to University resources and data, and responding to their recommendations with serious consideration and a willingness to implement changes.

What we need in the meantime is greater transparency from administrators on existing data around dining and GWorld statistics, as well as enthusiastic support from both administrators and students for research into the causes of food insecurity on campus. We need more outspoken administrative champions like those on the SA task force that are willing to challenge their own assumptions about the cause of student food insecurity and seek student feedback about our dining system. We also need an engaged student movement to provide insight to administrators and inform collaborative research.

True collaboration between students and administrators can only happen if we’re all discussing the same issue and acknowledging that it exists. The central issue is not unfounded food anxiety, lack of responsibility or poor decision making – the reality is that many students struggle to access sufficient quantities of affordable and nutritious food on a regular basis. Hunger on our campus has been a silent, isolating student experience for many years, and it’s time for GW to be an outspoken leader on this issue.

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