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Food Insecurity at Tufts

Campus | February 21, 2017

“Does anyone need to be swiped in? I have way too many meals left!” At the end of every semester, anxious requests from students in need of a meal and generous offers from others fill Tufts class Facebook pages. Although some students request meals due to time constraints in a busy finals period, others cannot afford to buy food. Awareness about lack of food security, or lack of continuous access to sufficient food, on college campuses around the country is increasing, and Tufts is no exception. Initiatives on campus, such as Swipe It Forward, are working to better address food accessibility issues.

In collaboration with Tufts Dining, Dean Robert Mack proposed the idea of a meal bank to the Culture, Ethnicity, and Community Affairs Committee at the Tufts Community Union (TCU) Senate which led to the creation of Swipe It Forward, according to first year TCU Senator Shannon Lee. Lee stated, “[Swipe it Forward] is seeing if there is a demand and if there is, what can students do to help? The long term goal of this project is to use the data we are collecting and to demonstrate to dining services and the administration that hey, these are students who are not being fed.”

Students can donate or request meals via an online form on the Tufts Student Life website. Currently, students can request up to six meals without stating reasons, while those on an unlimited meal plan can donate one meal and those on a limited meal plan can donate up to four. The deadline to donate is March 1, but students can request a meal at any time. Lee stated her hope that the deadline could be extended to the end of the semester, so students would not be left with too many meals at the end of the semester, when many students are squeezed by time and budget constraints in accessing food.

According to the Department of Agriculture, food insecurity is “the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.” With tuition increasing annually, college students are particularly at risk of facing food insecurity, which is also linked to decreased health, lower grade point average, and low income and employment. There is limited national data on food insecurity on college campuses, but a study published in 2014 found that 59 percent of college students at Western Oregon University had faced food insecurity within a year—almost four times higher than the national rate.

Julie Lampie, a Nutrition and Marketing Specialist at Tufts Dining, recognized the recent concern of food insecurity on campus in her work at Tufts Dining. She noted, “I’ve been at Tufts for over 30 years and it basically never even surfaced until approximately five years ago. I was doing a focus group with a colleague and I was questioning some students [about] what enticed them to join the focus group. One student said, ‘I look for any free meal because I don’t have the income to eat.’ That was the first time that it dawned on me that we have food insecurity at Tufts.” Though there’s no data specific to Tufts, anecdotal evidence such as Lampie’s focus group story suggests that food insecurity is a reality for students at Tufts. However, Lampie was doubtful if there would be high enough demand on campus to continue running Swipe It Forward. Would Dining Services continue Swipe It Forward? Lampie responded, “Possibly. I think it’s going to depend on how many meals have been donated and how many have been requested. If it’s pretty much on par or lopsided one way or another. I hope the need is there and there is sufficient number of meals to cover the need.” As of February 7, 635 meals had been donated and 179 meals were requested. However, because of the program’s newness, TCU is still working on outreach methods in order to target communities on campus that could benefit from Swipe It Forward.

With the new Food Systems and Nutrition minor, discussions on campus surrounding food have begun to shift, with increasing focus on food access. “The starting point for discussions around food access [has] actually come from thinking about waste,” said Anthropology Professor Cathy Stanton. She continued, “When you look at a food system, like our industrial food system, you can see that, actually, they are two parts of the same immensely large system that produces immense amounts of waste. 40 percent of the food that is grown or produced never gets eaten.” Stanton noted that simply giving food that would otherwise be wasted to those who need it is only a band-aid solution, which does not address the underlying causes that are driving increasing income disparity. “Although the focus has been more on rescuing food, the people who are involved in that are getting more aware of the fact that hunger is not just a problem kind of out there somewhere. There’s more recognition that food insecurity is going up the socioeconomic scale.”

With food insecurity becoming more prevalent, Lee spoke to the inaccessibility of meal plans on campus, asking, “Why is this a problem? This is a problem because the meals plans are structured in a way that only serves the business of Tufts Dining. I understand it’s a business but we shouldn’t be profiting off students.”