As I walked down South University Avenue yesterday, I counted one liquor store, two pizza parlors, four bars and countless restaurants. State Street didn’t look much different either.
Despite what seems like an abundance of food options, stories of hunger are an all-too-real, but rarely discussed, reality on campus. Student Food Co., a pop-up produce stand seeking to provide fresh, affordable fruits and vegetables to the student body, conducted a survey in 2012 of grocery shopping and eating habits among students. According to their research, 15,000 Michigan students are considered “food insecure,” meaning those students are “unable to acquire adequate food … because they had insufficient money and other resources for food.” Whether that’s because the grocery stores within walking distance are too expensive or the more affordable supermarkets are difficult to reach without a car remains unclear.
Either way, as a result nearly 12.6 percent of those considered food insecure frequently experience hunger and many others rely on empty-calorie meals like ramen and Easy Mac.
The University isn’t alone, though: Food insecurity plagues other campuses across the country. Michigan State University, San Diego City College, University of Central Florida and a host of others have all identified hunger as an issue. However, unlike the University, these schools, along with University of California, Los Angeles, Grand Rapids Community College and University of Michigan, Dearborn, have been proactive, starting either food banks or free bag-lunch programs in response to high hunger rates among their students. Given the University’s concern for students’ health and well-being, we should do the same.
The University has already committed to providing healthier food options by starting the MFarmers’ Market in the Michigan Union and sourcing more nutritional options in University-run stores, like U-go’s and Pierpont Commons. Unfortunately, these options are not always at student-friendly prices.
Considering the magnitude of the problem, the University should embark on a study to identify the reasons for the University’s high food-insecurity rates. Figuring out the barriers to food access is a first step. In an e-mail interview, Margot Finn, a lecturer of food studies at the University, asks critical questions: “Is it too hard to get on the city bus routes that go to grocery stores? Are bikes and zip cars too expensive? … (Are) stores like (Revive) and the People’s Food Co-op either too expensive or also too inconvenient? … Is it because real estate near campus is too expensive, so they’d have to charge Babo prices? Is there simply not enough student demand — between dorm cafeterias and the ubiquity of relatively cheap prepared food?”
Once the University has defined the scope of the problem, it will be better equipped to assess options and possible solutions, such as a food bank, a free bag lunch program or rideshares to the grocery store. I trust that such a research-oriented and innovative university will come up with a creative and multi-faceted solution.
I do realize the problem is systemic of something larger — rising income inequality and tuition rates that leave students strapped for cash and forced to push basic needs to the back burner. Let’s hope the University can start to make a difference.
Zoe Stahl can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.