Food insecurity grant seeks to create ‘hunger free campus community’

Graphic by: Maddie Bataille | Photo Editor

Around 30% of students that attend four-year colleges in the United States are food insecure, according to the University of Rhode Island Food Security Outreach Coordinator Barbara Sweeney.

Food insecurity is the state of having limited or uncertain access to nutritionally adequate foods, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For college students, traits associated with food insecurity have become normalized, according to Sweeney.

“When I was an undergraduate, I remember for a while I didn’t have a lot of money for food, and I also didn’t have anywhere to prepare it,” Orianna Carvalho, a first-year student in URI’s behavioral science Ph.D. program, said. “I would just carry around a big thing of deli turkey in my backpack because it was full of salt, and I knew that it wouldn’t go bad.”

Working to assess how food insecurity impacts URI, the University’s Feinstein Center for a Hunger Free America and the Division of Student Affairs developed a survey to look at this global issue on a smaller scale, according to Carvalho.

Although access to adequate food has always been an issue on college campuses, the issue has increased in prevalence within the last 20 years, according to Kathleen Gorman, director of the URI Feinstein Center for Hunger Free America. The dynamics and demographics of people coming to college have changed entirely and, in turn, impacted food insecurity statistics.

“Going to college used to be this elite thing that only some people did, and now there’s this expectation everyone should get a higher education,” Gorman said.

With greater diversity in race, ethnicity, age and gender comes a greater risk of food insecurity, according to Gorman. Non-traditional college students, such as financially independent parents, are even more likely to experience the stressors leading to food insecurity.

The cost of college has “skyrocketed” in recent years, and factors such as housing, student loan debt and dining plans contribute to the overall financial stress that college students experience, according to Gorman.

  With all of these factors impacting their college experience, students tend to push food intake and quality to the bottom of their priority lists, according to Carvalho. As this trend accelerates, students are viewing the state of being insecure as simply living the life of a college student.

Focusing on the aspect of financial stress on students, Gorman and Carvalho’s study aims to conceptualize what exactly URI students are struggling with, in order to develop a plan of how to address it directly.

The survey is the URI Feinstein Center for a Hunger Free America’s first step in their goal of combating food insecurity and was born from a $120,000 Point32Health Foundation grant.

The Point32Health Foundation was created by the combination of the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation and Tufts Health Plan Foundation, according to the Point32Health website. Their mission is to improve access to healthy food in New England communities through grant-making, volunteering and sponsorships.

Point32Health gave the URI Feinstein Center a grant in order to better address the issue of food insecurity at URI. Hoping to build a “hunger-free campus community,” Gorman stated that the survey will inform future programming within the initiative.

Continuing with the money from her grant, Gorman has hopes of creating a committee at URI that includes members from the University’s nutrition department, financial aid office and Cooperative Extension. 

URI’s Feinstein Center for a Hunger Free America and the Division of Student Affairs conducted a food insecurity survey in November of 2018 with similar goals, but due to errors in data collection, saw an overrepresentation of food secure, first-year students, according to Gorman.

Despite the oversampling, Gorman did see trends concerning which students on campus tended to be more food insecure. The 2018 survey found that older students, students of color and students living off-campus experienced higher rates of food insecurity, and they were also the groups found to experience higher rates of financial insecurity.

Instead of having a variety of professors and staff members push the survey on students, data collection in 2018 relied heavily on endorsements during intro-level lectures and messages given by Resident Assistants (RA), according to Gorman.

Hoping to more accurately reflect URI’s student body, URI’s Feinstein Center for a Hunger Free America is making attempts to attract participation from students from all demographics, according to Gorman.

Each student that completes the survey will be entered into a daily drawing for a $50 Amazon gift card, as well as a weekly drawing for a $100 Amazon gift card, according to the URI events website. Students can also earn more entries by sharing the survey link on social media.

The survey takes a maximum of 10 minutes to complete and is anonymous, according to Carvalho. Carvalho hopes that the anonymity and chance at a gift card will incentivize students to participate, along with the belief that they are making a difference in their community by completing the survey.

Carvalho explained that there is still a chance for inaccuracy in survey results because students might respond to the survey in such a way that presents themselves as “fine,” even though it is anonymous. This “social desirability bias” is one of the ways that normalizing food insecurity on college campuses has decreased the perceived need for a solution.

 “Students will remember being a part of this [survey], and that’s going to be really exciting,” Carvalho said. “Hopefully this will help us… humanize the issue, and show it does have an impact here.”

The data collected from this survey could start a systems-level change according to Sweeney. Instead of referencing studies from other four-year universities, URI’s efforts toward food security will intertwine the real details and experiences of its student body.

In addition to participating in the survey, students can help hunger within the community by donating to the Rhody Outpost, located at the Dining Services Warehouse at 10 Tootell Rd, according to Sweeney. 

The Outpost accepts all food items, and frequently runs out of cooking oil and rice, according to Sweeney. Donations in the form of basic needs items, such as toilet paper, wipes and toothbrushes, are also accepted.

Students seeking the Rhody Outpost services are required to bring their student ID, but there is a commitment to privacy stated on their website

“It’s seen as a ‘rite of passage’ to be a starving college student,” Carvalho said. “But food is a human right.”