Junior Eunice Grande’s days start at 4 a.m. She heads to the downtown Ithaca Starbucks and works five hours before heading back to campus to start her day of classes and meetings, usually getting back home after 5:30 p.m.
This is how her day was supposed to go on Sept. 20, but by noon she was hungry and didn’t have lunch. Homework had kept her up too late to grocery shop, and campus food like the pub was out of the question because she’s not on a meal plan.
“My last resort is the IC food court,” she said. “It’s really expensive.”
Instead, she was on her way to seek out free food on campus in between classes.
“I always look out for events with food just so I can eat,” Grande said. “Today, I know there’s an event for a study abroad program that’s serving free pizza with it. I feel like students don’t really know what it is to really appreciate those events with free food. I really look forward to those events because it’s a time I can eat.”
This is a strategy she said she uses often when she needs to go grocery shopping and is waiting for her next paycheck.
Grande is not the only Ithaca College student facing these barriers called food insecurities — a state in which consistent access to adequate food is limited by a lack of money and other resources at times during the year — according to the United States Department of Agriculture. Data from the most recent Campus Climate Survey, conducted in Fall 2016, shows that, out of nearly 3,000 students who responded, 47 percent reported experiencing financial hardship while attending the college, and 36 percent of those — almost 500 students — reported difficulty affording food.
Student experiences with food insecurity: “It forced me to diet a little”
Senior Nabilah Abdalla said she had experienced food insecurity growing up and has experienced it periodically throughout college.
“I grew up pretty poor, and my mom has moved to many different homeless shelters,” Abdalla said. “We ate mac and cheese and stuff, so we weren’t starving, but I didn’t know what it was like to have a real meal until high school when I moved in with my dad.”
She said she experienced this pattern again at the college before receiving a BOLD leadership scholarship, stretching out her meals and grocery store trips as she balanced work, school and living off campus.
“I would go off and on between not eating that much and eating enough,” she said.
This is the nature of food insecurity on college campuses, according to Brandon Matthews, associate director of campus resources of the College and University Food Bank Alliance. CUFBA is a national nonprofit organization that helps connect colleges and universities with resources to start initiatives for food insecurity. He said college students can often go from feeling adequately fed to food insecure as their schedules, circumstances and aid change.
According to a joint report by CUFBA, 48 percent of four-year college and community college students reported being food insecure in 2016, and 43 percent of students on a meal plan also reported being food insecure. The numbers are higher for students of color and first–generation students. The same report shows that 57 percent of black students reported food insecurity, and 56 percent of first-generation students were food insecure.
According to the most recent data from the college’s Dining Services, 1,810 students are on plan that allow them 14 meals a week, 1,045 students are on plans that allow them unlimited meals a week, 627 students are on a plan that allows them seven meals a week and 365 students are on a plan that allows them 10 meals a week.
Senior Jonelle Orsaio came from a lower-income household. She has all of her costs at the college covered through scholarships, grants and loans. But when she was a sophomore, she reduced her meal plan from a 14-swipe plan to a 10-swipe plan because, she said, it was the easiest, most immediate way to save money.
“I could survive on it,” she said. “But I would get hungry.”
The 14-swipe plan covers two meals a day every day of the week, while a 10-swipe plan only allows for about one meal most days. She downgraded her plan to save the $200 in price difference.
“It was a pretty drastic change,” Orsaio said. “I did struggle with trying to figure out my balance because 10 meals a week for a sophomore completely relying on the dining hall is really hard to do.”
She supplemented by microwaving cups of ramen in the Terrace Dining Hall micro-kitchens.
Another student, junior Victoria Cummings, is largely financially independent from her family and pays for most of her expenses like food and housing through her on-campus job.
She said she budgets just $50 a week for grocery shopping. This is consistent with USDA data that labels an individual shopping on $50 or less a week as the lowest category of shopper, on what is called a “thrifty plan.” Cummings said she will buy a few cheap items and eat them over and over during the week. She recounted a typical breakfast she ate almost seven days in a row: a banana, which she points out is only about 50 cents, oatmeal, which is just over a dollar for a container, and peanut butter, which is a few dollars for a large jar.
“It forced me to diet a little, to eat less,” Cummings said. “Since I moved off campus, I’ve had to budget myself a lot harder since I’m doing it all by myself.”
Most of the data on food insecurity is from public institutions. Data from small private colleges, like Ithaca College, are not as readily available, Matthews said. As a result, food insecurity tends to be even less visible on such campuses.
“Comments we hear often are, ‘Well, students made a choice to be there, and if they can’t afford to be there, then that’s their fault,’” Matthews said. “But it’s in an administration’s best interest to serve all of the students that they are willing to accept and support in their programs.”
Just about 200 of CUFBA’s 641 partners are categorized as private colleges or universities as opposed to public, community or technical schools.
“I think a lot of students don’t even realize that there are people below middle class going here,” Abdalla said. “It makes things hard because people are scared to show that because there’s so many richer people on campus.”
Sean Eversley Bradwell, director of the Center for Inclusion Diversity Equity and Social Change (IDEAS), said that, in his role as the director of programs and outreach about two years ago, he began to hear more about students struggles with food insecurity.
“The more I talked to students, the more I began to realize how much of an issue this was,” he said.
David Prunty, executive director of the Department of Auxiliary Services, helped bring the mobile food pantry to the college. He pointed out that social stigma keeps many students from speaking up about their issues with food insecurity, even if they need help.
“People don’t actively share that they’re hungry or feeling food insecure,” Prunty said. “It’s a hard thing to talk about oftentimes, so it makes it hard for people to self-identify. There’s fear about self–identifying — there’s fear about, ‘if I show up, what is it going to look like?’”
Tiffany Valentin is a program coordinator in the Office of State Grants, an office that oversees state-funded programs for lower-income students to attend the college. She said that these same social stigmas are exaggerated for students of color on campus.
“With intersectionality, especially if you are low income and a person of color, students think: what perception do people already have?” Valentin said. “It’s like: ‘OK you’re a person of color so you have to be poor’ so that’s another stigma where students don’t want to disclose that they are low-income.”
Increases in aid, an updated first-generation student program and new scholarship opportunities, such as the New York State Tuition Award, are all new programs and efforts on behalf of the college to reach out to students of diverse and marginalized backgrounds. However, outside of programs like a new initiative called Swipe Out Hunger and the mobile food pantry, there are no other set avenues for institutional support specific to food insecurity.
Over the past 10 years, the total cost of attendance at the college has gone from $42,183 to $59,540, a 40 percent increase. At the same time though, the discount on tuition — the amount the college offsets its sticker price by offering grant aid — has gone from $64 million to $118 million — over double the percent increase in tuition. This means that the average student is getting more aid to come to the college, despite rising costs.
“Historically speaking, we’ve always had a sizable population of folks who struggle financially but have additional support for their tuition, room and board,” Bradwell said. “We just haven’t paid enough attention to it. It’s new in terms of the [increasing] numbers, but it’s not new.”
These are students like Orsaio who came to the college from a lower–income background but receive grants and scholarships that support almost 100 percent of their costs of attendance. However, once these students are on campus, sometimes not all of their needs are met.
Valentin said she hears this often from students.
“What I’ve heard … is that we do a good job of getting people here, but were not the best at supporting them when they’re here and retaining them,” she said.
Current services available at the college
The mobile pantry is a truck operated by the Food Bank of the Southern Tier that comes to campus once a month for students to pick up for food for free. It saw its highest turnout last month, when over 240 people, mostly students, were served.
Even as the college sees an increase of students utilizing supplemental food services, campus community members still worry some students who could benefit are falling through the cracks.
This is part of the reason why Abdalla and junior Unagh Frank brought the Swipe Out Hunger program to campus this September.
Swipe Out Hunger is a nationwide program on 46 campuses that combats food insecurity among college students. Students with campus meal plans can donate one guest swipe to be put into a schoolwide bank that can then be distributed anonymously to students in need.
“A lot of people think that, because we pay so much money to be here and because it’s a private institution, … why would students be hungry?” Frank said. “Just because we are on a campus that seems to have a lot of money, doesn’t mean that every student has the same financial situation as the person sitting next to them.”
At the college, all students who live on campus, outside of the Garden and Circle Apartments are required to have a meal plan. These plans come with three guest swipes that cannot be rolled over if they remain unused at the end of the semester.
Swipe Out Hunger representatives, led by Frank, tabled outside of the dining halls throughout eptember 2018 to solicit donations from students. The donation period ended Sept. 20 and garnered 949 swipes to be bundled into meal plans and distributed to students who approach Dining Services, the Office of Student Financial Services or other campus community members expressing a need for extra meals. Students both with and without meal plans can use the program.
Barbie Bharger, assistant director of Student Financial Services, is in charge of distributing the swipes to students. As of Sept. 18, over 318 of the donated swipes had been used by students in need.
Bharger said the swipes come in packages of 15, and the number of swipes distributed can vary depending on individual circumstances.
A preliminary meeting with Student Financial Services is required in order to gauge a student’s need as well as to check on the student’s well-being.
Grande said that, when she heard about the program in late September, she felt relieved. It felt like the solution she needed.
“Scrambling” for solutions: Addressing the problem
Prunty said he and fellow faculty members discussed about a year ago that food insecurity was affecting students at the college. These conversations started off organically and nonstructured but eventually resulted in a committee to address food insecurity. The committee is responsible for bringing the mobile food pantry to the college.
“Folks in different offices started to see a need developing,” he said. “It’s only fairly recently that people have started focusing more on our internal campus community.”
There have long been efforts by students to combat food insecurity in the larger Ithaca community. The club “Stop Wasting Ithaca’s Food Today (SWIFT)” packages leftover dining hall food once a week and distributes it to the local homeless shelter, a backpack program packages food donations for local school children and just last year a student started a program to donate leftover Bonus Bucks to the community food bank. But efforts focused on student hunger on campus are fairly new.
The mobile food pantry was the first of its kind at the college when it began in March 2017, and it has seen an average of 100 people per visit, most of them being students, Prunty said.
Grande said she has been consistently attending the food pantry since last fall, even keeping a list of the dates on her refrigerator. When she went this August, though, the line was so long that she was only able to take home a few items, she said.
Abdalla said she has had a similar experience at the food pantry in which she was unable to take as much food as in the past. She said she noticed more students attended, some of whom she was skeptical about whether they were actually dealing with food insecurity. She said she thinks the food pantry should be marketed differently.
“It started to be advertised as free food for everyone, not just for food insecure students,” she said.
At a diversity and inclusion meeting hosted by the Division of Finance and Administration on Sept. 26, Prunty spoke about the shortage of food at the August food pantry.
“We’re worried about October,” he said, based on the fact that about 40 people had to be turned away from the last food pantry.
“We’re — scrambling is the wrong word, but it’s not entirely the wrong word — to come up with long-term solutions,” Prunty said.
The official advertising for the food pantry on Intercom does note that the truck is brought to “sites where people need food.” He said he takes all suggestions for improvement into consideration but worries about making the advertising more explicit, as it could discourage students from coming to the food pantry because they are worried about the level of their “need.”
For these students, there are other options outside of the mobile food pantry and Swipe Out Hunger, but these options are largely personally addressed by specific faculty or administrators.
Student Financial Services is one of a growing number of offices who keep leftover food pantry goods and make care packages out of them for the students who approach them about food insecurity. Bharger said the office gives out about a dozen of these each month. The School of Humanities and Sciences Dean’s Office in Muller Center and the Center for IDEAS lounge in the Campus Center also have drawers or cabinets with limited food packages.
Junior Brooke Maybee, the student coordinator for SWIFT, said she had not thought of using the program to provide food for students but would be open to using the program to repackage dining hall food for students specifically, in addition to the Ithaca community.
Jeff Scott, general manager of Dining Services, said he is open to conversations with students about what more they can do.
“We’re always open to being a part of those conversations,” he said.
Scott said students are asked about the affordability of campus food in two end-of-the–semester surveys, but the data is not open to the public. He declined to give the responses on affordability from the survey to The Ithacan.
At the same time, costs of college meal plans are soaring, especially at private institutions. Time’s Money section reported that the price of an average college dining hall contract has jumped 47 percent in the last decade while food costs across the nation rose only 26 percent over the same period — meaning students who eat on campus are spending more money on food than Americans who eat at home.
The college’s meal plans are also increasing in cost, although at a slightly lower rate than the national average. The college’s default meal plan, the 14+ Blue, costs $3,497 per semester, averaging out to about $30 a day or around $15 per meal. A decade ago, the cost of a meal plan per semester was $2,562, according to the 2007–08 undergraduate catalog. This is a 36 percent increase over a 10–year period.
These costs are pricing students like Orsaio out of a meal plan.
“I think the cost of food here is just outstanding,” she said.
Despite the solutions in the works, Abdalla also said she is concerned the addition of Swipe Out Hunger will make it seem like the problem of food insecurity is solved when it actually is not.
“Donating swipes isn’t going to be enough,” she said. “When we help someone, especially someone we don’t know, it gives a feel–good feeling, and that feeling makes it so we don’t really think about the problem anymore.”
Bradwell and other administrators, including Scott and Prunty, emphasized that they are working on new solutions, but it is largely up to students to join the conversation and press for more resources.
“We find ourselves, as a lot of institutions do, unfortunately, behind the demographics of our student population,” Bradwell said. “We need to be urgent. … The urgency comes from students, so the more students push, unfortunately, the more urgent the institution usually becomes. So, the more we hear of stories, the more students share ideas and innovations, the more likely we are to try and make those things happen.”