One day, when you’re sitting in the Green Grove Cafe for lunch or lounging in the beautiful new Biomedical Sciences and Engineering (BSE) building, take a look around at those around you. Did you know that as many as one third of the people you see may be worrying about how they will afford their next meal? Or, perhaps, you are in that position. If so, know that you’re not alone. Food Insecurity is prevalent across university campuses nationwide. A 2018 study by the Wisconsin Hope Labs found that 29% of university students struggle with food insecurity, while a survey at USG found that 36-38% of students may be dealing with this issue. This far outstrips the approximately 11% of Americans who experience some degree of food insecurity. For the next year, in my role as a CCMA AmeriCorps VISTA I will help tackle the problem of food insecurity in the USG community by growing and developing Grover Essentials, USG’s on-campus food pantry, and by working on comprehensive resource guides and planning informative events to address this pressing issue.
During my time working with the Center for Student Engagement and Financial Resources (CSEF) team on Grover Essentials, I’ve found that one of our fundamental goals is to decrease barriers and stigma around food insecurity and the use of programs and services to increase food access. One surprising barrier is the general lack of understanding about exactly what food insecurity is, and some people not recognizing that they may be experiencing food insecurity themselves and thus are eligible to use the wide array of resources available at the Universities at Shady Grove (USG) and in Montgomery County as a whole.
The Oxford dictionary defines food insecurity as “the state of not having reliable access to enough healthy food that you can afford,” with the USDA breaking food security into 4 different levels, from High Food Security to Very low food security, the latter being defined as an individual reporting “…. disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake” on many occasions. Too many consider being food insecure as resembling only the “very low food security” category, whereas in reality one is experiencing food insecurity if they have any level of anxiety over how they will be able to consistently afford sufficiently nutritious meals. While the idea of the ‘starving college student’ may sound somewhat romantic to the more privileged and can almost seem like a rite of passage to some, difficulty obtaining nutritious food is severely detrimental to the educational experience and hurts a student’s ability to succeed academically and personally. Recognizing food insecurity in all its degrees is an important step to developing effective and meaningful ways to enhance food security and promote wellness at USG.
Another important step we’ve taken is paying close attention to feedback from Grover Essentials customers and the wider USG community. We’ve all filled out satisfaction surveys before and have had the sneaking suspicion that nobody will actually read your feedback, or at the very best your comments and concerns will get a brief once-over by someone with no intention of taking them seriously. Not so at Grover Essentials. Part of my daily routine includes carefully reviewing the feedback we receive from our customers for ideas and inspiration and sharing some of the best suggestions and most pertinent concerns with the rest of the Grover Essentials team. We often make decisions as a direct result of this feedback. For example, several customers mentioned that check in times were too long because intake forms were only loaded on a single iPad, and the shelves were sometimes lacking variety. So, we responded by adding additional Grover Essentials dedicated iPads and making an effort to increase the variety of items on offer. These are small but important changes that keeps Grover Essentials a pleasant service to use, which increases the likelihood that those who need it most will continue to visit regularly.
My overall goal as a VISTA is to build capacity at Grover Essentials and help institute lasting changes that will enable USG to continue addressing food insecurity for years to come. I’ve been overwhelmed by the support I’ve seen on campus for increasing food access and learning more about this important issue, and I’m confident that there’s enough interest, passion, and concern among the students, faculty, and staff at USG to ensure that the entire community continues to work towards a future where all of our friends and colleagues have ready access to safe, healthy food and basic necessities.