Op-Ed: Beyond the guide, steps to true campus affordability

Thursday, April 12, 2018 - 6:04pm

—

Over the last few months, politics on campus have shifted their focus to affordability and access. When the Central Student Government Affordability Guide debuted in January, student outrage at the glib nature of its advice sparked serious criticism — followed by a passionate call to action — from all corners of the University of Michigan. In the recent CSG election, we saw candidates from almost every party include affordability in their platforms and preach it at the debates. With these issues quickly moving to the forefront of the conversation, it is imperative that the University works to ensure students (particularly marginalized ones) have their basic needs met. Until the administration undertakes this challenge, our organizations — the Michigan Affordability and Advocacy Coalition and the U-M Sustainable Food Program — will continue bridging the gaps in service and resource allocation.

Of the many issues to tackle, the one that seemed to resonate most with people in the wake of the Affordability Guide was housing. Each year, students scramble to sign leases as early as September for units that are quickly becoming unaffordable to those who hail from modest financial backgrounds. Simultaneously, Ann Arbor is constructing new luxury high rise projects at a seemingly exponential rate, crowding out businesses and affordable housing in the process.  Average rent in the city is now $1,463 — a 5-percent increase from last year. The reality of the situation is undeniable: Ann Arbor is an expensive city and it is getting more expensive by the day. For students who cannot afford to live here, their options are either to commute or hope for a miracle in the form of a room that costs less than $600 per month.

Thankfully, some students have already brainstormed solutions to this growing problem. Back in January, LSA junior Chris Olson published an op-ed advocating for reinstatement of the Ann Arbor Tenants’ Union which was dissolved by the University administration in 2004 despite being popular among students. Since then, campus organizers and activists have rallied around the idea of establishing a union as a sustainable, long-term way to protect renters in the city. The previous CSG assembly was even in the process of pursuing the idea, and a couple of parties added it to their list of campaign promises during election season. It is a solution that is effective, politically palatable and desperately needed right now. The University must consider it as a feasible answer to the question of affordability on campus.

In addition to creating a physical organizing body, the Michigan Affordability and Advocacy Coalition, in collaboration with The Daily web team, is in the process of developing a virtual platform for students to rate rental companies in the city. This website would likely launch in winter 2019 and act as a placeholder for an established Tenants’ Union. In the meantime, we will continue to organize and advocate on behalf of student renters to secure their needs and protect their rights under the law.

While it is certainly important, housing is far from being the only affordability issue at this university. Food insecurity and hunger are topics that are often not talked about on our campus, for understandable and unfortunate reasons. They are also tied together in that students experiencing one are more likely to experience the other. The stigmatization of both can contribute to people not seeking out help when they need it.

Food insecurity is a growing issue both generally in higher education and at the University. In a study recently published by the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, 36 percent of college students were found to be food insecure. The most recent information we have at the University is from several years ago, which reported 41.5 percent of students experience low or very low food security. Students who reported a higher incidence of low and very low food insecurity were also more likely to be eating less nutritious food. With increasing costs of attending the University every year, these numbers likely has gone up.

Hunger does not exist in a vacuum either. Study after study has linked poor nutrition and lack of food access to lower GPAs, higher incidence of health problems and often long-term academic hiatus. This is also experienced differently among different identities. Marginalized populations tend to have much higher rates of food insecurity, and the University is no different in this respect. To bring so many great students and people to the University of Michigan and then not provide adequate resources for them to succeed is a travesty. It also contradicts badly the University’s push to be more diverse, equitable and inclusive.

We have seen student attention to this problem growing as well. With what seems like little resources from the University, students themselves have stepped in to help each other. This year, multiple CSG parties had provisions on their platforms calling for different ways to combat food insecurity for students. Many students outside of CSG, as well as whole organizations, are devoted to combating these issues as well. Maize and Blue Cupboard and Student Food Co. have, for years, offered free distribution and sold high quality food to students. Recently, several organizations, including the University Sustainable Food Program and CSG, partnered to expand the free food distribution that Maize and Blue Cupboard puts on every month. Many undergraduate students, graduate students and lecturers attended this distribution to receive free, nutritious food. However, it's important to note that students have course loads and work themselves, and simply cannot provide the resources available to a multibillion dollar institution.

Many other campuses are facing similar problems and have developed different solutions that accommodate each of their situations. These include several of our in-state companions and rivals such as Michigan State University (they in fact had the first student food pantry in the nation)  For years, UMSFP and all of its 12-member groups have advocated for this model. And while historically the University administration has turned a blind eye to this issue, over the last year two coalitions have formed: One group primarily comprised of Student Life administrators and another comprised of student groups. Many UMSFP member groups have begun coordinating with these two coalitions to better understand what slate of services would best meet this need. It is highly likely this this will culminate the Maize and Blue Cupboard expanding into a more regularly staffed location to access food. This is a model that we believe the University could copy, and we celebrate this possibility — but our efforts should not stop there. To provide free food for students generally in need is a great plan, but the problem of food insecurity can also be attributed to the lack of convenient, nutritious and low-cost food providers on campus. This includes both prepared (grab and go or sit-down options like wraps) and unprepared (raw vegetables) food. Many institutions such as those in the University of California system, are working with city governments or non-profits in the area to help promote these options. They are also focusing on providing spaces for businesses like these to operate in existing institution buildings or creating new spaces to house similar programs.

We should emulate them in this regard. Education, as well, is key. Many students lack skills such as food budgeting and cooking for themselves, or knowledge of whether they qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP-inspired state programs, skills which the University could also include in the spirit of educating us holistically. While again, amazing student organizations have stepped in and provided these services, there is a need for much more effort. We need institutional commitment, as seen in the UC system or MSU, to tackle this problem in a multi-pronged way. A mechanism for this could be the signing of the Presidents United to Solve Hunger accord, which works to provide resources to help universities address food insecurity and to encourage supporting other colleges and communities do the same.  

While housing and food security are obviously complex problems, there are tangible steps that we — and the University administration — can take to tackle them. Our organizations have many ideas, like those provided above, and we anticipate that many others will come to light as/if more people become engaged in this work. Of the many sources we cited throughout this article, most of them were produced by students. We need more information from many sources in order to gauge progress on these problems. We also need to better serve students of the University and support dedicated staff working on these issues. To be the Leaders and the Best, as we are so often expected to be, we need to first have our basic needs met.

Connor Kippe is an LSA Junior and Lauren Schandevel is a Public Policy Junior

More like this