Column: GW must take steps to address food insecurity on campus and in D.C.

Among GW students and in the larger D.C. area, food insecurity, or the lack of access to sufficient food to meet one’s basic needs, is extremely prevalent. Food insecurity is on the rise across the United States and college campuses, and many organizations fighting to address this issue are struggling to meet increasing needs. Systemic socioeconomic inequities ever-present in the D.C. area create varying degrees of food insecurity across the District, with less-wealthy wards left without the resources to manage such a pressing issue. GW, we as students cannot continue to turn a blind eye to the epidemic of food insecurity occurring on our own campus and within its surrounding communities.

As the District’s population has swelled in size and affluence over the past decade, the existence of a “grocery gap” between wards has grown. It is no coincidence that as wealthy wards like Ward 2 have expanded, fewer resources go to Wards 7 and 8. A 2017 study by D.C. Hunger Solutions found that nearly 70 percent of the city’s supermarkets in 2016 were concentrated in its richest, predominantly white neighborhoods – Wards 1, 2 and 3 – while the remainder were in underprivileged areas that are predominantly Black – Wards 7 and 8. Even with recent redistricting efforts, which have delivered two new grocery stores to Ward 8, food insecurity disparities driven by grocery gaps remain in the D.C. area.

Transportation, lack of financial means and understocked storefronts remain decisive factors within this issue. A 2020 Capital Area Food Bank report revealed one out of 10 residents of the metropolitan Washington region – nearly one-third of them being children – are food insecure, lacking regular access to sufficient and nutrient-dense food. These residents are someone’s parent, sibling, child or student – they deserve the same, if not more resources, than anyone else. Since then, the pandemic has gone on to exacerbate food insecurity, trending upward after 2020.

With such staggering inequity in mind, we must examine the privilege, or perhaps blissful ignorance, GW showcases in its nonchalant attitude when handling the epidemic of food insecurity among students. GW ought to recognize the financial privileges granted to students by simply existing in Ward 2. But while GW lacks economic diversity in its student body, lower-income students and families are also part of our community. If anything, our location in such a wealthy ward is a detriment to food insecurity, especially those facing financial barriers, given the steep costs that come with existing in Ward 2.

The University’s efforts to address food insecurity among students have been nothing short of abysmal – a 2018 report revealed 40 percent of students face food insecurity at GW. The larger dilemma of food insecurity among college students is one that must be addressed and quickly – Health Affairs, a peer-reviewed public health journal, recently called food insecurity on college campuses the “invisible epidemic.” This is especially true at GW, where on-campus students are tasked with managing dining dollars – $15 to $20 a day – in an immensely expensive environment. But we students cannot forget our immense privilege to use these dining funds in a ward that has greater access to food, let alone education and housing, than most of the rest of D.C.’s population.

But although more needs to be done, GW has made some progress this semester. The University implemented an unlimited “swipe” meal plan for new dining halls in Thurston and Shenkman this semester and added a weekly shuttle between the Foggy Bottom Campus and the Safeway grocery store in Georgetown. After GW Dining officials announced Whole Foods will no longer accept GWorld starting in June 2023, the Safeway shuttle will bring about a way for students to better access a different grocery store at one with much lower prices than those of Whole Foods.

But the University providing a method of transportation to a grocery store for students is the bare minimum – this service does not aid students who don’t possess the means to buy groceries or students without GWorld. GW should provide student vouchers at Safeway once the shuttle takes effect for those who cannot afford to purchase a dining plan or lack the means to refill their GWorld balance. The University should also organize sponsored programs using school funding to give free meal swipes to GW students in need, partnering with grocery stores dedicated to combating hunger. Safeway has demonstrated a dedication to addressing food insecurity, particularly in D.C., in partnership with programs like DC Hunger, Mission DC and Capital Area Food Bank. GW must ensure that all students, regardless of their family’s tax brackets, receive equitable access to their basic needs while attending GW.

To live in an environment where so many lack access to adequate food without taking action is shameful. In my privileged position as a GW student, it would be irresponsible and inconceivable for me not to use my voice to amplify this issue – food insecurity directly affects my fellow students and the larger communities that surround me. The administration should take further steps and action to combat the epidemic of food insecurity for their own students and D.C. residents, beyond attempts to get students easier access to groceries. A recognition of the stigma surrounding food insecurity, particularly at such a wealthy institution, should be a guiding solution to combating the issue among students.

There are a number of ways GW could work to address basic needs across their student body, while setting a strong example of serving those in need for the larger D.C. community and surrounding areas. GW must act swiftly, in a manner that is reflective of dedication to and awareness of food insecurity. Privilege is power. It is time for us to demonstrate this and properly allocate this power, to better serve those in need.

Jessica Rich, a freshman studying human services and social justice, is an opinions writer.

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