Persistent chatter from winds sweeping campus, the light rolling thunder of electric scooters and Vespas, the striking toll of Burton Tower: the customary sounds of our beloved University of Michigan. The sounds that we know as content and occasionally jovial. But, cloaked and metastasizing in the forgotten corners, is another sound, one that encases and suffocates, like the ivy on Tappan Hall. This sound is the growling stomachs of the un-fed students. Without the ability to fill oneself with sustenance, can true happiness ever be fulfilled? Quite simply, it cannot. Verifiable contentment, as granted by “certain unalienable rights,” is impeded by the lack of access to food within our own U-M community.
According to a food survey conducted by the University in 2020, 30% of students struggle with food insecurity. The USDA defines food insecurity as “a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life.” Research shows that food-insecure students are 40% less likely to graduate from college and 60% less likely to complete a post-undergraduate program. Dropping out of school due to food insecurity may inhibit students from fulfilling their life-long aspirations, goals and desires.
In attempts to prevent food insecurity and declining enrollment, the University offers a food bank program, but it’s only a band-aid on a Niagara-Falls-size cut: only open for short, inaccessible hours and only offering food, kitchenware, cleaning supplies and support, not hot and ready to eat meals for already busy, struggling college students. Furthermore, food banks “are not always sources of fresh, healthy food.” When students have to choose between paying rent, paying for healthy food or paying for insurance, how can they ever focus on academic studies, let alone be happy?
Though today the University accepts a diverse range of students, those who are from historically marginalized groups are often the ones suffering from food insecurity. In an attempt to level the playing field, the University offers qualifying students free laptops through the LSA laptop program. Yet, those same students are left forgotten at mealtime.
Another issue contributing to University’s food insecurity rate is the fact that there is no clear survey conducted by the school that showcases how much food is being wasted, instead opting to implement a “holistic” approach to fix food waste. This involves choosing to serve food on small plates and “no trays.” However, this practice is neither logical nor practical, since food that could be going into a meal accessibility program still gets wasted. Can the University afford to go without conducting statistical analysis and therefore haphazardly waste food, or are food waste statistics known but not shared?
According to NPR, the average university throws out around 22 million pounds of uneaten food each year. Note that the average person eats 1,996 pounds of food per year, meaning that the food waste produced by college campuses could feed over 11,000 students.
There is work that needs to be done. First, the University should complete an analysis of the fundamental needs of students alongside a formal statement of priorities. Second, an accurate food waste survey should be conducted and the results should be made public. Finally, costs of supplying a healthy, accessible and free eatery should be budgeted, taking into account the food waste information survey. If the budget isn’t met, then a look into potential funding avenues or alternative solutions needs to be considered like potentially the multi-billion dollar endowment the University has.
We as students and community members also have the necessary role of spreading awareness of the topic and educating the public. If you are a student and a part of a student organization, bring up food insecurity at a mass meeting, along with how your organization can help. Odds are, several students in your organization are quietly suffering.
One could argue that with a much lower price tag on meals, there would be no money available for the University to get the necessary ingredients. While this is a valid thought, the cost of a one-time dinner for a student or guest is just under $13, and the average cost to cook the same meal at home is $4 (without labor consideration). As community members, we must ask ourselves, is a profit margin of 325% (before labor costs) suspiciously high?
It can also be argued that if a food security program exists it should be limited to students who truly need it. While these students should certainly have access to food security programs, many middle and even upper-class students are also limited in their food access or have experienced food insecurity. Those who fall just above the poverty line may only have the budget for cheap, ultra-processed, unhealthy meal options. Other students may be upper class and come from a home that, on paper, can provide for them, but in reality doesn’t.
Ultimately, there are an infinite number of reasons why a student is food insecure, and whether a student “has” money doesn’t matter when their bellies are empty and they have no way to access healthy, consistent food. Happiness cannot fully be achieved without first fulfilling the basic need to eat. The University of Michigan needs to see how its students are suffering.
To move forward, we all need to acknowledge our institution’s past of discrimination and aim toward a brighter future in which every student has equitable access to fulfill every basic need, including food. Accountability must be taken for the lack of information accessible to the public, as well as the statistics on how much profit the University makes from its dining halls. If change isn’t imminent, soon the only sounds we will consider “normal” on campus are those of the empty bellies of our fellow Wolverines.
Autumn Cole is a senior in the College of LS&A.
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