November 2019
empty plate

Food insecurity is a growing issue on many college campuses. In Minnesota, a statewide basic needs survey of college students conducted this past year found that 40 percent of respondents had experienced food insecurity in the prior 30 days.

The repercussions of food insecurity are severe and impact students in many ways, from lowering their ability to achieve academically to decreasing college graduation rates. Attention to the issue has been growing, with any institutions in Minnesota taking steps to support students. Last month Gov. Tim Walz signed a proclamation that recognized Oct. 24 as College Food Insecurity Awareness Day; colleges across the state hosted events and worked to reduce the stigma surrounding food insecurity.

For this Q&A we interviewed two college staff members to discuss what their institutions are doing and ways to support students facing food insecurity. Emma Kiley, a recent graduate from Hamline University, received her bachelor’s in environmental studies with a concentration in sustainable food systems; she is now the university’s campus food access AmeriCorps VISTA. Casey Gordon is the program manager at the Center for the Common Good at the University of St. Thomas; her work focuses on supporting students and managing the Tommie Shelf.

Q: What has driven attention to this need on your campus?

Kiley: There was a student teach-in where students expressed their concerns about not being able to afford healthy, culturally appropriate food on campus, but also off campus. In an initial survey we found out that over 70 percent of Hamline undergrads identified as food insecure. Food insecurity at Hamline certainly exists on a spectrum so there are more severe cases and less severe cases, but we did not expect the percentage to be so high.

Gordon: We chose to trust students and trust the literature . . . when starting Tommie Shelf. We respect our students’ privacy at our Tommie Shelf events, and therefore all conversations about personal struggles are off the record. The turnout at our monthly event, however, speaks volumes, and we continue to collect data in order to strengthen the program and fight food insecurity in more robust ways.

Q: What are some ways that efforts are underway at your institutions to reduce the stigma around food insecurity?

Kiley: There's a lot of education advocacy work going on at Hamline. For example, Dr. Susi Keefe’s ‘Health and Environment’ course is hosting a series of Food & Chats. [These] are an opportunity to really dive into topics related to food insecurity while also providing a free meal to the Hamline community. I also think that the culture of our Pop-Up Pantry events have helped a lot with reducing stigma because the turnout is so high so it's hard to feel like you are outing yourself as food insecure.

Gordon: I think one of the kind of tenants of our marketing for Tommie Shelf is [that] it's just kind of a fun program. It's got a fun name. And we partnered with our marketing department here to make the marketing and the logos for it. I think that the way we present it makes a lot of people think it's just another student club. And so, I think that by the way that we present it, doesn't feel like a charity a lot of times to students.

Q: How is attention to food insecurity changing?

Kiley: I think Hamline is in a really unique position to be able to say that we've done the research. We have done a significant amount of research on this campus that not a lot of other campuses like ours have done. We do have an opportunity here to take the lead and make significant changes.

Gordon: Anecdotally, I can say that when I was in college, both as an undergraduate and a graduate student, I never once heard talk of food insecurity. As a graduate student . . . I would watch for leftover food from meetings in the English department office and walk home with plates of leftover meat and cheese to have for lunch and dinner. I didn’t know I was food insecure, and I certainly didn’t know of any programs that addressed food insecurity on campus. Perhaps it’s because it’s my job now, or perhaps it’s a more educated, aware student body and administration, I couldn’t say, but it seems as though there is definitely a vast awareness of the issue at St. Thomas that I haven’t experienced before. I’m really proud to be part of that.

By Aaisha Abdullahi