It’s so common that it’s a cliché: the poor college student surviving exclusively on packaged noodles for weeks on end. It’s the archetype of a college student, and it’s almost a cultural rite of passage. The University of Wyoming’s Food Security Task Force is seeking to dismantle the pervasive idea that college students cannot have access to nutritious food.
Ohio State University published a 2017 multi-university study on food security that included UW, and it found that a third of UW students were food insecure. However, that study only included undergraduate students. In a later study done by Kerry Schinkel, a master’s degree student at UW, the number of food insecure students proved to be much higher number — approximately 45%.
Food insecurity refers to the lack of access to enough food for a healthy life, and limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods. A food insecure person or household isn’t necessarily without food all the time. Food insecurity may reflect a person’s need to trade off between other basic needs, such as housing or medical care, in order to afford adequate, nutritious food.
According to 2018 data from Feeding America, one in nine people are food insecure in the United States. In the state of Wyoming, one in six children are food insecure, and Albany County has a food insecurity rate of 12.9%. Because of the pandemic, these numbers are projected to increase across the nation.
When a student is food insecure, it may mean that they are unsure of where their next meal will come from or whether they will have to skip meals. Food insecurity has dramatic effects on a person’s mental and physical functioning. For college students, going without food can affect a person’s academic performances, mental health, and overall well-being.
In 2017, UW’s Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources launched an initiative to distribute shared food cabinets across campus. The program grew quickly to include eight cabinets across the campus. This initiative was a major inspiration for the task force’s student-lead approach.
In the fall of 2019, the Associated Students of UW (ASUW) officially recognized the need to address UW student food insecurity. From that point, Anna Savage, former ASUW director of wellness and sustainability, Caitlin McLennan, and professors Rachael Budowle and Christine Porter collaborated to form the UW Food Security Task Force.
“We want to produce well-rounded, nourished individuals. No one on the UW campus should be food insecure,” said McLennan, a recent UW graduate and co-coordinator of UW’s Food Security Task Force. McLennan insisted that UW should invest in food security and ensure no one goes hungry.
“Our task force’s model is really unique. It brings administrators, faculty, staff, and students into one room together to work towards one goal,” said Courtney Titus, vice president of ASUW who joined the task force in 2020.
She said that they wanted this to be a trailblazing effort. She added that typically in a food insecure dynamic, there are “haves” and “have-nots,” which perpetuates a power dynamic and creates stigma around needing assistance.
The task force aims to eliminate that imbalanced dynamic, and focus more on a sharing ethos where people give when they are able, and then have access to these resources when they need it. A major part of the task force’s mission is to reduce the stigma of food sharing, and prioritize respect and dignity for everyone.
The task force has gained much ground in its short lifespan. In collaboration with the Dean of Students Office, they were able to expand the UW food share pantry, which is now a permanent fixture for UW students and employees to access food. During the pandemic, it has been doing curbside pickup. Both Titus and McLennan drew attention to the tremendous donation by the local Latter-Day Saints Church and the Black 14, who recently joined efforts to donate 20,000 pounds of food to the food share pantry.
Another initiative that the task force is piloting is a Swipe Sharing program. To get meals from the campus dining hall, students swipe their ID cards to purchase them. Through swipe sharing, students can donate their “swipes” so that those needing more meals can pick up extra dining hall swipes at no extra cost.
They are also working on a good food recovery program. When there are campus events and there is extra catered food that is still good but has gone uneaten, a text alert will go out to the UW community alerting them that this food is available for grabs up to 30 minutes after the event. The 30 minute time limit ensures preservation of food safety. This simultaneously reduces food waste and hunger. Its success and implementation will depend on when campus is able to resume events.
In the future, the task force is considering working on an at-cost grocery store. Informal surveys published in a 2020 study revealed that 100% of UW student respondents said they would like to have a campus grocery store. While it’s the most in-demand solution to food insecurity, it is also the most ambitious.
“It’s the biggest project because we’ll need to develop and build more systems and infrastructure, such as staffing the store,” Titus said. She added that the ability to shop and choose your own groceries can be a bit more dignifying.
TO LEARN MORE
The UW Food Security Task Force meets once per month. These meetings are open to the public and community involvement is encouraged. The best way to keep up-to-date with their events and initiatives is to follow them on the Facebook page, UW Food Security Task Force, and their Instagram account @uwyofoodtaskforce.