Many people think that college students are housed and fed. In reality, a 2019 Hope Center study found that 41% of college students do not have consistent access to nutritious and affordable food. As the cost of tuition has increased at an alarming rate and financial aid has lagged behind, many students are forced to pay for the cheapest meal plan or to opt out completely. When students are hungry, it is difficult for them to concentrate and complete their homework. They often miss classes, receive lower grades, do not buy textbooks, and leave school altogether.
In order to understand students’ perspectives on this issue, I asked 30 students on campus about what is currently being done and what the university should be doing to better support students. Students made it clear that they think the university needs to increase awareness and outreach, reduce stigma, and offer nutritious and affordable food.
Awareness and Outreach
One of the main resources for students who need food is the food pantry called Blue Hen Bounty at St. Thomas Episcopal Church. It was created in 2016 by the Episcopal Campus Ministry and is open on Wednesday from 4 to 5 p.m. and by appointment. While there has been some advertising, only 10% of the students I surveyed knew about the pantry. One student said, “Definitely voice that the food pantry is an option of campus. I’ve never even heard of that before.” In order to reach more students, the university should find innovative and proactive ways to advertise.
In addition, the university should identify students who do not have enough to eat before it affects their education, rather than waiting for them to self-identify. According to a study by The Hope Center, the students who are most at risk are students living off-campus, students receiving the Pell Grant, international students, first-generation students, and students of color.
One way that the university can be more proactive is by including information about the pantry in the Center for Teaching and Learning’s syllabus template and requiring all professors to include this information in their syllabi. In addition, the university should advertise in spaces that are frequented by students who are most at risk. For example, in order to reach students living off campus, the university should advertise the pantry on university shuttle buses, and especially on the buses that operate to and from the red lots. Additionally, the pantry could collaborate with Blue Hen Marketing club to promote campus awareness.
Research has shown that students are hesitant to use food pantries due to stigma. This is also true for students at the university. When students were asked if they would use the pantry several answered no. One student responded, “No, because I think there is a negative stigma around it, even if people say otherwise.” Another student said, “It’s hard here especially, because a lot of kids come from out of state and appear visibly wealthy so there’s some stigma associated with it. Personally, I think there’s no shame in it given the amount we pay in tuition.” This student is indicating there is a perception on campus regarding the type of students who attends the university, therefore, inhibiting students from using resources. The university needs to develop solutions to reduce stigma related to using the food pantry.
In order to decrease stigma, Kristin Wiens, an instructor in behavioral health and nutrition, is starting an additional food pantry on campus that will be in coordination with a course — behavioral health and nutrition 367 — to teach students about cooking by using food from the pantry. This reduces stigma by rebranding the pantry as a place to learn about healthy eating and cooking. The pantry will be located in Willard Hall and the Science, Technology & Advanced Research (STAR) Tower.
Nutritious and Affordable Food
When I asked the students what they think the university should be doing to support these students, an overwhelming majority discussed reducing the cost of dining options. For example, one student said, “I think the university could easily [allow] things like cheaper dining plans for students who qualify or guaranteeing them an unlimited meal plan so that they have a consistent resource for food on campus.” At the very least, the university could provide a meal plan scholarship for these students that covers three meals a day on campus such as the 150 All Access plan, which costs $2,715 per semester. This would help ensure they have consistent access to nutritious and affordable food.
As the university welcomes new students, it needs to be proactive by implementing strategies that increase awareness and outreach, reduce stigma and provide nutritious and affordable healthy food. The university’s homepage states, “Our most important job at the University of Delaware is leading our students to success and preparing them to thrive in the 21st century.” The university cannot honor this commitment without supporting all students’ access to nutritious and affordable food on campus.
Kathleen McCallops is a doctoral student in human development & family sciences
at the university’s College of Education & Human Development. Her views do not necessarily represent the views of The Review’s editorial staff. She may be reached Kamcca@udel.edu.