Column: GW should expand The Store to address continuous food insecurity

After the next academic year, Whole Foods on I Street will no longer sell groceries on GWorld. In their announcement of the grocery chain’s departure from the GWorld card program, officials called the grocery store chain an “integral” part of students’ meal planning, and rightfully so. Its loss is a major setback in GW’s long-term attempts to tackle on-campus food insecurity. Rather than wait for Whole Foods’ planned exit from the GWorld card program, the University and its community can prepare to address on-campus food insecurity now. With the cost of food preventing students from eating, GW should invest more funds in and expand the reach of The Store, its take-what-you-need on-campus food pantry. 

Foggy Bottom may appear to have an extensive dining scene, but convenience doesn’t equal accessibility and affordability – Whole Foods is practically students’ only option for a grocery store. The 25th Street Trader Joe’s doesn’t take GWorld, and The Georgetown Safeway – which does accept dining dollars – requires an hour-long round trip on a city bus or shuttle to the Mount Vernon Campus.

Food insecurity is an economic issue as much as it is a logistical one, and the University’s dining plans have failed to address it. When GW transitioned to an open meal plan in 2016, students said they still frequently ran out of funds and food before the end of the semester. A 2019 report from the Wisconsin HOPE Lab found that 39 percent of students said they faced low or very low levels of food security, worrying about food and skipping meals.

With Whole Foods no longer accepting GWorld, students’ food insecurity will likely worsen. Preparing food at home with items from Whole Foods and other grocery stores can be more cost-effective than traditional and counter service restaurants – a single salad at Sweetgreen costs between $10 and $12, not including sides and a beverage. A week’s worth of the same salad would cost less than $30 at Whole Foods, more than halving the average cost of the daily meal. The USDA estimates a nutritious, practical, cost-effective diet for a one-person household costs between about $60 and $80 a week – a price that’s far more effective to spend on a week’s worth of groceries than a single meal. But students’ ability to stretch their budget decreases when vendors, especially grocery stores like Whole Foods, withdraw from the GWorld system.

GW accounts for that cost-effectiveness in its dining plans, where students with kitchens received fewer dining dollars than their kitchen-less peers under its legacy plan. But this arrangement fails to address the impending reality that students with a kitchen soon won’t be able to spend their dining dollars as effectively when Whole Foods stops taking GWorld. The cost of purchasing groceries out-of-pocket on top of subscribing to one of the University’s new meal plans under its all-you-care-to-eat dining hall system adds up. I’ve already experienced this – I spend about $200 dollars a month shopping for groceries at a non-GWorld vendor and have a remaining dining cash balance of over $3,000. Dining cash is non-refundable and non-transferable unless students withdraw from their housing agreements at the start of the semester. And while remaining balances roll over into the next semester, that isn’t helpful if students don’t use dining dollars.

Without Whole Foods as part of the GWorld system, the University won’t be able to meet all of students’ nutritional needs. Students can’t subsist on chicken sandwiches and pizza alone, but paying extra for fresh produce and other ingredients starts to become a financial burden.

The Store, which offers a take-what-you-need supply of grocery items and other household goods at two locations in District House and West Hall, is a more concrete solution to food insecurity. The Store circumvents the stigma around food insecurity and food aid with its emphasis on privacy and discretion – it doesn’t require background checks on students’ financial or conduct history, and shoppers remain anonymous. To that end, the University has partnered with the national nonprofit Swipe Out Hunger to encourage students to donate their excess GWorld balances to The Store since 2020.

Philanthropic donations from students, faculty, alumni and other donors can’t support The Store alone. Additional funding from the Student Association and Division of Student Affairs can help The Store meet students’ food needs. And the University ought to set aside more funding and more space for an expanded food pantry when it renovates District House later this year. While The Store must remain free to use for those in dire need, expanding it for students who are only occasionally or rarely food insecure would be one way to offer more flexibility to students struggling to afford groceries.

Officials should also encourage students to devote their spare time and money to The Store beyond just pushing them to use its resources. Adopting a pay-what-you-can model for year-round donations in addition to the Swipe Out Hunger campaign would allow students with excess dining dollars to swap that financial burden for a boon – fresh, affordable groceries. Instead of waiting for a sudden rush of donations at the end of the year, consistent small-dollar donations could give The Store some flexibility of its own while ensuring students’ access to food. Whether because of logistics or the expense involved, only The Store’s Foggy Bottom Campus location stocks perishable items. But greater demand for food and greater support for the food pantry’s vital work could expand its reach, especially to students already isolated on the Mount Vernon Campus.

Whole Foods’ withdrawal from the GWorld system threatens students’ access to relatively affordable and accessible food. With new living arrangements, work opportunities and the everyday pressures of college life, the last thing students should worry about is where their next meal will come from. If both the University and students are willing to support The Store with their time and money, they can worry just a little less.

Ethan Benn, a sophomore majoring in journalism and mass communication, is an opinions columnist.

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