“We have to talk about food”: At Tufts, Not All Students Take Their Next Meal for Granted

Art by Audrey Njo

As a first-generation and low-income student, junior Aaron Apostadero has dealt with food insecurity for a long time. Now, as the co-president of Tufts Student Garden club, he wants to address and raise awareness of the issue at Tufts. “I’ve met people who deal with the same problem,” Apostadero said, noting food insecurity is especially prevalent among members of the first-generation community. But, according to Apostadero, although the issue impacts many students, “no one talks about it.”

Food insecurity, the inability to reliably afford or access adequate food, is an urgent problem at Tufts. A recent survey shows that both affordability and accessibility of food are prevalent issues. Out of the 516 undergraduate respondents to the Tufts Community Union (TCU) Annual Survey, 11.82 percent of respondents said they were hungry but did not eat due to financial constraints sometime in the past month. Furthermore, 26.32 percent of respondents said they were hungry but did not eat due to a lack of access to food sometime in the past month.

The university has recently taken steps to address food insecurity at Tufts with the formation of the Food Solutions Coalition last summer. The coalition, which consists of administrators, faculty, staff, and students, has worked on projects like the Swipe it Forward meal swipe bank, a grocery store shuttle, and providing food to students over school breaks. Individual students have also organized around the issue, such as Apostadero, who recently planned an event called Food Day that brought students together to discuss food insecurity on April 15. But Apostadero said he still doesn’t think most people at Tufts are aware of the issue, especially on a campus with a high percentage of wealthy students; as of 2013, 19 percent of students came from families in the top one percent of incomes in the US. “I know a lot of people who will never have to deal with these things,” he said.

Silence and stigma

The persistent stigma surrounding food insecurity can make the topic more difficult to address. “If we are going to develop a more empathetic campus, we have to talk about food more,” said Professor Julian Agyeman, the chair of the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts and a member of the Food Solutions Coalition.

Given the wealth of the student body at Tufts, some students might not feel comfortable publicly sharing their experiences with food insecurity. Sophomore Adrienne Mermin said, in her opinion, Tufts is “not a place where it feels totally normal to hear people expressing financial struggles.”

One of Agyeman’s students did a research project on two community colleges in the Boston area and how they dealt with food insecurity, which revealed the importance of addressing stigma. Agyeman said one college used an “under the table kind of manner” to supply food in a subtle way, while the other college “accepted the stigma and started talking about it with students.” At the second college, they found more students were using the provided food services, and the issue was essentially destigmatized. Agyeman said, “This is what I want to see more of—empathy and dignity being baked into food policies.”

Nicholas Stewart, a graduate student and Food Solutions Coalition member said that although universities like Tufts are considered elite, hunger still exists. He said, “These are places of great higher knowledge and great excellence, but within these infrastructures are still systemic issues that affect people. Access to food, access to housing, access to clothing… Those are basic needs that are not being met in intentional ways.”

For Agyeman, combating the stigma around food insecurity is essential to eliminating hunger at Tufts and beyond. “What we’re dealing with here is a very intimate personal issue that requires empathy and the centering of human dignity and the right to food as part of that solution,” he said. “Anything that falls short of that is doomed to fail.”

On campus, meal plans determine who can eat

When living on campus, most students purchase meal plans, which allocate a certain number of meal swipes each semester. First years are required to buy a premium meal plan, which includes 400 swipes. Sophomores on campus must choose between the premium, 220, and 160 swipe meal plans. Mermin called the options “very expensive, and not exactly conducive to students’ needs.” The premium meal plan costs $3,818 each semester, which she said includes “more swipes than you would ever need.” The next highest option, however, fails to provide even three meals a day.

For second-year dual degree student Ed Hans, a last-minute change in housing last fall left them without a reliable source of food. They originally purchased the 40-swipe meal plan, but when they were forced to vacate their off-campus apartment and move to an on-campus dorm, they ended up with too few meals for the semester and no kitchen to cook in. Although they later tried to switch their meal plan, they were told it was already past the deadline. Director of Dining and Business Services Patti Klos wrote in a statement to the Observer that preventing students from changing their meal plan after a certain point is “necessary to ensure we have sufficient staffing” at the on-campus dining locations.

This precarious situation took a major toll on Han’s well-being. To make their meal swipes last longer, they would stay in the dining hall for hours and try to eat as much food as possible. When short-term aid ran out, they had to “beg” for more, sending email after email to the financial aid department. Hans said, “It was really stressful, only knowing two weeks in the future that I would have food… It made it way more difficult to just be a student.”

To find resources, Hans referenced the Tufts Food Resources webpage and ended up receiving short-term aid from two main sources: the unexpected hardship emergency fund and the Swipe it Forward program. The unexpected hardship fund offers up to $500 for students on financial aid, and Hans received $200 in JumboCash in early October meant to be used to purchase meals.

The next aid Hans received was from Swipe it Forward, Tufts’ meal swipe bank run by the FIRST center, Student Affairs, Tufts Dining, and the TCU Senate. Meal swipes are donated by both Tufts Dining and students. In the fall of 2022, the program was used to distribute 1,802 meal swipes according to a report released by the Food Solutions Coalition. Dean of Student Affairs Kevin Kraft wrote in a statement to the Observer that because of the coalition’s work, the number of donated meals has “grown significantly” over the past year.

But the program, while useful, has limitations. Students can only donate a maximum of six meals each semester and receive a maximum of 10. Additionally, students can only receive donated swipes if they have less than five meals in their account, an issue Hans ran into when they knew they would run out of swipes soon but still had more than five. They finally received 10 swipes in late October, less than a week’s worth of food. The coalition seems aware that their donation may fall short of student needs; the report states they are considering “increasing the swipes allowed per donation and per request.”

Hans wondered why hungry students can’t just be let into the dining halls for free. They were especially angry at finding out that parents were allowed to eat at Tufts for free during Parents Weekend. Hans said, “If you could do that all along, why not let me into the dining hall?”

Throughout their time dealing with food insecurity, Hans didn’t feel like administrators were able to react appropriately to the urgency of their situation. “They were not hearing my human pleas,” Hans said. “They were just thinking, ‘That’s not in the system. We can’t do that.’” Hans did not receive a long-term solution until November, when their financial aid was increased enough for them to purchase sufficient meals to last them until the end of the semester.

Off campus, grocery stores are inaccessible

Students living off-campus without a meal plan face different challenges when getting food. Local grocery stores can be difficult to access without a car, and even the stores that are close by often have high prices and limited selection. The problem is especially prevalent at a time when food prices are rapidly rising.

Upon moving into an off-campus apartment last year, Apostadero said one big challenge was the new time commitment that came with buying and preparing food. He compares prices at different grocery stores to try and find the best option because “it might be only 10 cents, but 10 cents matter.”

Bfresh and Neighborhood Produce are relatively close to Apostadero’s house, but culturally accessible supermarkets are further away. “I’m not going to get Asian ingredients at either of these grocery stores,” Apostadero said. “So I have to go all the way to Central Square to go to the H Mart to get them, and I don’t have a car.”

Because local grocery stores can often be inaccessible, TCU Vice President and Food Solutions Coalition member Arielle Galinsky began a pilot program to help students get to the Wegmans in Medford more easily. The shuttle ran every Thursday and Sunday for five weeks from February to March. Galinsky believes the program was successful, effectively “heightening access to nutritious food for lower costs for students.” 

Administrators have indicated they would like the program to continue. Kraft wrote, “We expect to continue to offer a shuttle to a grocery store next year. Details about the frequency and schedule are being finalized.”

Food justice, from the Asian American Center to a new community fridge

Just inside the door to the Asian American Center, a bulletin board labeled “affirmations” holds a scattering of sticky notes left by students. Five of these notes contain some variation of “Food will come back to the AAC.”

During the 2021–2022 school year, a community food supply at the Asian American Center  provided meals to anyone who needed them. The food occupied a few small cabinets in the AAC kitchen and quickly became popular. However, according to AAC Associate Director Emily Ding, it was unsustainable. Ding said, “The food that we refilled would disappear quite immediately.” 

The program was possible in part because of COVID restrictions at the time, which limited the amount of food that could be served at AAC events. The AAC redirected this budget into the community food supply—buying rice, spam, and frozen meals at Costco to supply students with 217 portions of food throughout the year. But when the Center applied for additional funding to continue the food supply the next year, the request was denied. When asked why this request was denied, Kraft wrote, “In order to ensure that all students have access to food resources, the AAC partnered with the food solutions coalition to create a more robust resource accessible to all.”

Ding said that because the food supply was such a success, students and staff began to unrealistically expect that the AAC and other DSDI centers could fill the gap left by food insecurity. However, the AAC food supply was only ever intended to be a short-term resource, not a systemic change that could meaningfully address food insecurity on campus. The centers are already under-resourced; at the AAC, Ding said that while the Asian population has been growing on campus, the center’s budget and resources have not increased proportionately. Ding said, “We only had two staff at the time, and we already are pulled in so many directions.” All of these factors contributed to the lack of resources to sustain the food supply.

Now, Ding, Stewart, Galinsky, Klos, and others on the Food Solutions Coalition have been working on a new project, one that takes the burden of feeding students away from the AAC and puts free food in one centralized location: Jumbo’s Community Fridge. 

The new community fridge and unstaffed food pantry will bring free food directly to the Medford campus. The project has been heavily supported by Tufts Dining, and Ding said the coalition hopes to launch the fridge before the end of the semester. The fridge and pantry will be donations-based, although Ding and others have discussed Community Supported Agriculture farm shares as a future option. Kraft wrote, “This will be a pilot program that will run for one year and be re-evaluated. We are also considering initiatives in a variety of areas to help further expand food access in our community. Ideas and suggestions from everyone at Tufts are welcome.”

Stigma was a significant concern for Galinsky when planning for the upcoming food pantry. She said, “One of the big concerns and thought processes when planning for the food pantry was: how are we going to find a balance between students wanting to use the pantry without feeling stigmatized that they need access to it?”

In her work, she wants to not only address food insecurity, but change how people talk about the topic at Tufts. “How do we have all these initiatives while completely redefining how food security is thought of and considered at Tufts?” she said. “Because ultimately, there should be no stigma attached to being food insecure.”