A peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a pack of crackers and a cup of grapes from Outtakes on campus costs about $3-4 more than a homemade peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a box of crackers and a bag of grapes from Kroger.
A group of undergraduate students presented these two sets of food to Auburn University President Jay Gogue and other campus leaders in early March. They set up an appointment with the president to implore the University to institutionally address something they’ve studied and have found to be prevalent on campus: students facing food insecurity.
A core group of 10 undergraduate students in a hunger studies capstone are striving to have the University implement some sort of system so food insecurity "isn’t part of the equation" at Auburn. Other student groups are also making efforts to destigmatize the need for food assistance, provide more resources and implement broader institutional change at the University.
The hunger studies class has been researching food insecurity on campus through interviews with a handful of students. Dorcas Mukigi, a Ph.D. student collaborating with the class, conducted data-driven research by sending a survey via email to 16,700 students at least 19 years old. About 1,000 responded, and Mukigi found that 31 percent of students who responded were food insecure.
Food insecurity is defined as being without enough food for all household members and limited access to or uncertain availability of nutritional foods.
The students posted fliers on different areas of campus inviting students who struggle with food insecurity to participate in an interview in exchange for a $20 Kroger gift card.
The students in the hunger studies capstone course have also noticed that several students don’t think they deserve help. They don’t believe their situation is as bad as others.
“People come in, and they don’t look hungry,” said Kate Thornton, the professor of the course.
Students they've interviewed have reported skipping meals, reducing the amount of food per meal or sleeping instead of eating. Grades begin to suffer often times. Satiety takes priority over nutritional quality, the group explained.
“When we actually were talking to people was when we realized that there’s real hunger on campus. … It’s not just, ‘Oh, I have to have ramen today. I have to have PB&J all week,’” explained Olivia Singleton, who is in the capstone course. “It’s like, ‘I’m actually hungry, and I don’t have resources to help me.’”
Most students interviewed by the class are working and all are full-time students. The majority of them rely on their TigerCards. Several students in the class described food insecurity as a silent struggle.
“It’s just heartbreaking,” one student-researcher said. Thornton added that sometimes they cry in class.
The group finds hope in presenting their research to the University to jumpstart changes. The student-researchers said they don’t think the University is aware of the degree to which food insecurity is prevalent on campus. Thornton called it "rampant."
Singleton, junior in human development and family studies, came from a single-parent household in a small town. Her mother worked three to four jobs during her first year of college, while Singleton herself worked every holiday, summer and weekend that she could since she could drive.
Singleton couldn’t receive financial aid because her household income was too high, something she sees other students face as well.
“I think that the students that face some of the biggest struggles are the ones that are forgotten because they fall in between tax brackets,” she said.
Singleton is taking 21 hours of class this semester and tries to work 25 hours each week. She pays her own rent and everyday living expenses.
Though she hasn’t had to go hungry or sacrifice meals, she has come close.
“I think that a lot of students are always one event away from being food insecure,” she said, adding that she doesn’t think people realize food insecurity is an issue on campus.
Medical bills, rent, groceries and a blown tire turned into a tight financial situation for Singleton, who didn’t want to burden her mother by asking for help, even though she ended up doing so.
“My mom will pick up extra shifts and work way more than she should to provide for me,” she said. “But not everybody at Auburn has those resources, and they really need advocates at Auburn to be there for them.”
Even if students may have those resources, some are hesitant, just as she was, to ask for help. Like Singleton, students interviewed by her class didn’t think they needed help or felt guilty or burdensome for asking for help, even from a family member. Talking more about food insecurity, she said, would help students realize that others deal with the same struggles more than they think, which would help reduce stigma.
As a result of the meeting with campus leaders, Thornton said, leaders including the vice president for Student Affairs and campus dining officials will be tasked with coming up with a campus plan to address campus food insecurity.
Possible solutions the students pitched include lowering food prices on campus, allow leftover dining dollars to be donated to food insecure students and grants from the Concessions Board, which provides funds to projects that "make life at Auburn better for faculty, staff, students and the community." Others involve normalizing asking for help, which would require a “huge culture shift” on campus, Thornton noted.
Bobby Woodard, associate provost and vice president for Student Affairs, said that he will have a meeting with campus dining and Auxiliary Services to discuss the possibility of lowering food prices. Creating a campus grocery store, another proposed solution, would require more research to determine if it would be feasible on campus, Woodard said. He noted that space may be an obstacle. Managing leftover dining dollars falls under Auxiliary Services, of which Tiger Dining is a part.
Based on the initial meeting with the president, the University may decide to conduct its own official campus study on food insecurity, Thornton said, though it’s still unclear at this point what that may look like.
The first step to starting an institutional-led research effort is determining what food insecurity encompasses, said Woodard. Then University leaders would, with the help of leaders such as the Office of Institutional Research, formulate a survey for students.
"This [food insecurity] is something that we're going to look at ... what the real issue is and how can we come to that solution," he said. "As a logistics person, that's what I want to know: What's the issue [and] if we can't fix it ... how can we make dents in it, and that's what I want to do. I think we've had two meetings total [about food insecurity] in my two and half years here."
Research would help determine how much to market and what the need is, though with a new University president coming in this year, the survey would most likely be sent out next spring or next fall, Woodard added.
The group will meet with Woodard in a couple weeks to discuss topics such as advertising and funding of the Campus Food Pantry, which functions almost entirely on donations.
The Campus Food Pantry, which began in 2013 under Student Affairs, serves students out of the Student Center as long as it has contributions. An annual fall food drive typically stocks the food pantry for the year come, but it also reaches out to various campus groups. However, at times, demand has outweighed supply, which calls for improvisation — providing students with what is available.
The Campus Food Pantry is not a partner agency with the Food Bank of East Alabama because its leaders decided it would ultimately allow the food pantry to serve more students. Being a partner agency of the food bank would require students to provide proof of need in order to be eligible for assistance.
Though being a partner would allow the Campus Food Pantry to receive food from the food bank rather than rely on donations, it would also probably disqualify some of the students it serves now because they might not meet the same criteria the food bank is required to use in its vetting process, according to Katherine Hettinger, who manages the Campus Food Pantry.
“I would have a difficult time saying to a student, ‘No, technically you don’t meet the requirements set out by the Food Bank of East Alabama,’ or whatever guidelines that they established, and say, ‘No, you can’t use the food pantry because of that,’” Hettinger said. “I couldn’t do that. … I don’t want to turn people away.”
The only requirement to access the Campus Food Pantry is being an Auburn student. Students fill out an application and a food preference form for the week so the food pantry knows what to pack for them. The students then pick up the food — which can include vegetables, soup, pasta and canned meats — at their convenience at the Student Conduct office in the Student Center.
Woodard is interested in possibly collaborating with local grocery stores for food donations and making more fundraising efforts to purchase food for the Campus Food Pantry.
Each semester the Campus Food Pantry sends out a notification of its service to the weekly University email newsletter, which is sent to students, in addition to having a webpage and an informational banner outside the Student Center. It has served about 88 students since it began and serves about eight to 10 students on average per week.
Woodard has sent a memo to the provost office requesting a permanent location, with room for food storage, for the Campus Food Pantry in the basement of the Haley Center, though it may end up in another campus building. The Student Center is too occupied to hold an expanded food pantry, but with new facilities such as Mell Street Classroom and the new School of Nursing facility, space elsewhere will likely open for the food pantry. It would preferably be placed somewhere accessible to central campus but not too conspicuous.
The Campus Food Pantry collects data from the student application to study trends that can help its leaders understand who they’re serving and how to better serve students in the future. Data show that several graduate, international graduate and financially independent students use the resource on a more consistent basis, Hettinger said, whereas others may use it only occasionally or in a pinch.
She remembered buying a product to help a student mom whose child was sick, which, as a mother, connected her to the student.
“They’re here at Auburn to better their situation and better their life and get an education,” she said. “And to be working so hard academically and then be struggling to put food on the table for your children, I cannot fathom what that is like."
Hettinger said she’s unsure how big of an issue food insecurity is among students. She’s aware of the results Thornton’s class has found but also questions how Auburn University student food insecurity could exceed state food insecurity and why, then, aren’t more students using the Campus Food Pantry. The food insecurity rate in Alabama is 18.8 percent, according to Feeding America. In Lee County, it is 18.3 percent.
“I think we all know why somebody might not use the food pantry,” she added. “I think there’s a lot of stigma around just utilizing services in need.”
To try to reduce stigma, the food pantry is structured to maintain a sense of anonymity and to be somewhat hands off and discrete.
There are other obstacles that detour students from asking for help. Hettinger recalled meeting with several students who could benefit from the food pantry but claim they don’t need it or don’t need it yet, just as the capstone class found.
Many researching or involved agencies that address food insecurity agree there is still a stigma around being food insecure and asking for assistance, something universities should strive to overcome.
Hallie Nelson, president of The Campus Kitchen, said that addressing food insecurity should be one of the issues discussed at Camp War Eagle or Successfully Orienting Students. Explaining options in food insecure situations and providing resources like SNAP applications could, Nelson said, help destigmatize the topic. Camp War Eagle touches on other sensitive topics such as sexual consent, mental health and drug use.
Nelson, senior in biosystems engineering, said a few years ago, people didn’t seem to talk much about food insecurity.
“It took a couple years for people on Auburn’s campus to talk about it,” she said.
Working with The Campus Kitchen for the past three years showed her that the amount of food that would be wasted at campus dining venues has the potential to feed people.
An on-campus food resource for students, The Campus Kitchen is an organization that collects excess food from dining venues and packs it into to-go meals for students.
It has served about 50 graduate students each week, though it recently decided to increase the students it will serve by more openly advertising the service.
Many students who receive the meals from the organization are international students, Nelson said. Other organizations and groups have also recognized that international students receive food assistance where they can.
Often times leaving their families also means leaving the support they once had at home. Some also have families of their own that they are trying to support while in school.
International student also do not qualify for federal assistance, so any USDA food assistance program — such as the food stamps program — is not accessible to them. Students also cannot work more than 20 hours per week for all jobs on campus, except during the summer or during breaks between semesters.
The Campus Kitchen is applying for a grant that would allow it to buy a microwave, chairs and silverware so meal distributions would become a community lunch in which students can sit and eat the meals instead of picking it up to-go as it is structured now.
The University is aware of the issue of food insecurity on campus, Woodard said, but not the extent of it. At this point, the University is in a "refining process" of getting more resources, a better location and better marketing, he added.
"I don't want anybody to go home and be hungry," Woodard said. "We can't have that happen."