Campus groups work to combat off-campus students’ food insecurity with an emergency meal program
This article is part of an ongoing series of articles outlining specific initiatives of Central Student Government on campus.
Business sophomore Arathi Sabada, a Central Student Government representative, has been working with Michigan Dining and the Dean of Students Office to implement an emergency meal program that will allow students living off-campus worried about food security to request six meals during the winter 2017 semester.
Food security is a prominent issue on college campuses, with a study conducted by Hunger on Campus finding 43 percent of all students with a meal plan experience food insecurity, and 46 percent of these students run out of meal points before the end of the term. At the University of Michigan, all dormitory meal plans are unlimited, though off campus students have to choose how many meals to purchase for the semester.
Sabada stated any University students could benefit from the new program, and they could either be referred by Counseling and Psychological Services or University Health Services. They could also walk in and talk to the dean of students to see if the program would work for them.
“Essentially a student can go there and for whatever reason they might be food insecure, they can request six meals from dining,” Sabada said. “If they happen to be struggling this month, it’s meant to tide them over and get them through the week, the semester, whenever they need it. The dean of students will then contact dining and add the meals to the student’s MCard, so anyone is eligible for the program.”
Public Policy junior Joe Shea, CSG communications director, mentioned the program allowed students on campus to have access to alternative food sources to ensure that their academic performance didn’t suffer because of a lack of food security.
“The emergency meal program was based on this idea that ‘Leaders and Best’ is something that we often use to describe ourselves as students, but in thinking about what allows students to be leaders at their best — they need to have access to nutritious foods for every meal of the day.” Shea said. “That is the founding belief of the emergency meal program.”
Sabada stated though most studies suggest food insecurity is a large problem on campus, there wasn’t sufficient data collected specifically from the University. She mentioned it was hard to find out how and whom to help when there weren’t any numbers for them to build on.
The idea of the program came from working with student organizations and hearing concerns from students. These discussions allowed an estimation of how useful it would be for campus.
“We knew there was a need on campus so we wanted to do two things: meet that immediate need by providing students with meals, and also collect that data so that future data can be crafted that more directly target the populations that may need the program the most,” she said.
CSG also collaborated with other student organizations such as Maize & Blue Cupboard, a food pantry distributes resources through the Trotter Multicultural Center.
The emergency meal plan’s current model was developed after looking into the school’s own resources as well as other programs colleges statewide and nationwide have used. Colleges like Michigan State University have also set up food pantries that offer different food distribution methods in an attempt to address the problem, but many have found it difficult to cope with the increasing demand.
Regents at the University of California also recently launched a Global Food Initiative with a Food Access and Security Subcommittee, which includes measures such as vouchers for campus dining, expanding food pantry access and improving communication about resources. Students at Columbia University created an app called Swipes that connects people with meal plans to “receivers," allowing them to use complimentary swipes to let other students into dining halls. Universities such as UW-Madison, New York University, Emory College and others have adopted similar policies.
“I sat down with several different student organizations that were working on this and we had this idea of a partnership with dining,” Sabada said. “We looked into some other school programs and this was the result of what we found worked best with the infrastructure we have here.”
LSA sophomore Skylar Burkhardt, who currently lives off-campus, acknowledged the lack of food resources on campus and brought up the fact that food insecurity is an issue a lot of students at the University deal with.
“I was in a program the other day where there was a simulation about food insecurities in developing countries, and a lot of people were very frustrated with it, and were talking about how they didn’t have to be demonstrated what food insecurity looks like, or what in general not having these privileges looks like because this is something they experience on a day-to-day basis.” Burkhardt said. “There is definitely a lack of cheap, healthy food resources in the downtown Ann Arbor area, so really if you’re living off-campus you have to drive or take a bus to get to these places.”
While Burkhardt admired the program and acknowledged it was a step in the right direction, she also felt it was a short-term solution to a much larger issue.
“It doesn’t seem like a very sustainable program, in that it’s not going to be solving their hunger in the future,” she said. “But I think as long as someone is getting the meal — it’s definitely a good cause to be working towards, and I think it’s really cool that they’re eliminating this disadvantage for the time being, but I’m curious to see if any long-term solutions will come up.”
Sabada also acknowledged the fact that the program wouldn’t be sustainable for the future, but added it is primarily being used to address immediate student concerns, as well as collects data so new initiatives can be launched in the future.
“We realize this program is not a long-term solution — it’s only six meals, and that doesn’t solve food insecurity on campus,” she said. “But we’re hoping to really meet that immediate need for students that are struggling now, helping them through this period and hopefully coming up with a program next semester that is more long-term and able to help students throughout the duration of their college career.”