You are ‘entitled to a nutritious meal’: Hunger and homelessness initiatives on campus
While the number of dorms and meals prepared by the dining halls might seem infinite, many students on campus face the reality of lacking housing and food security.
This September, after about a year of planning and coordinating, the university held its first Swipe Out Hunger drive, a program where students can transfer a few of their meal swipes to students who experience food insecurity.
Catherine Zimmerman, a senior neuroscience major, was inspired by a news program she watched about students at Temple University who coordinated a similar program on their campus. She brought the idea for this program to the university.
Zimmerman reached out to Kristin Wiens, a faculty member in the Department of Behavioral Health and Nutrition. The two brought together interested students and representatives from Dining Services, Auxiliary Services, the Office of the Dean of Students and the national Swipe Out Hunger program to discuss possible implementation of this program at the university.
While Zimmerman anticipated possible pushback from administration and Dining Services, she said all parties eagerly participated in this program.
Wiens said that the cooperation between all those involved made for a nice, painless process.
“I think some other campuses get a lot of pushback from their Dining Services, and I think we were fortunate that we didn’t have any of that,” Wiens said. “Aramark and facilities see that food insecurity is an issue and they were more than happy to help. It made the process so much easier for all of us cause everyone worked together really, really well.”
Robin Moore, senior director of operations within Dining Services, said that the incentive for Dining Services to participate was to be a good partner to the university and to support this worthwhile cause.
“We realize that [they] are a partner both on campus and in the community, and we are always looking for ways that we can help the community grow and be successful,” Moore said.
The cooperation between departments allowed for a successful donation drive, according to Moore. She said that the numbers from this drive were successful compared to those that she received from her peer Aramark accounts.
According to Wiens, students donated 1,144 meal swipes and around $350 in Flex points. The Office of the Dean of Students, according to assistant deans Brian Armstrong and Meaghan Davidson, receives requests from students experiencing food insecurity to transfer these swipes and points onto their UD identification cards (UDIDs). The office also works to identify students that could benefit from this resource, and then it transfers these meals onto the students’ UDIDs.
The Office of the Dean of Students, according to Armstrong, centers its work on case management, individually working with students and providing them with resources from the food and homelessness initiatives across campus.
“If we want every student to graduate from the university… , part of it is making sure they are getting their basic needs met, which is food and housing,” Davidson said.
Temple University found that in 2018, more than 40% of college students experienced food insecurity. The same study found that 48% of their survey respondents who attended four-year institutions experienced housing insecurity.
Food insecurity, as defined by Temple University’s #RealCollege Survey Report, “is the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe food, or the ability to acquire such food in a socially acceptable manner.”
Davidson said that one example of food insecurity is a student going to the dollar store and spending $20 on ramen to get them through Thanksgiving break because the dining halls are not open. She said anxiety around food and lack of access to nutritious meals may result in poor academic performance.
“How are you supposed to do well in your classes and focus on being a good student if you’re not having the right nutritional content?” Davidson said.
Similarly, housing insecurity emcompasses a broad range of circumstances. Davidson said these situations include couch surfing, receiving an eviction notice and not knowing where to go, getting kicked out of a house, not having a place to live in between sessions when the residence halls close and not feeling safe in the housing options a student may have.
When the Office of the Dean of Students works with students who struggle academically, according to Armstrong, they get to the root of the cause, which is often food and housing insecurity.
Students often do not outright realize or admit to having such struggles and they do not seek resources because of the stigma surrounding poverty, hunger and homelessness, according to Wiens.
“That’s the beauty with Swipe Out Hunger,” Wiens said. “When those swipes are loaded on your card, they’re yours, they’re no different than anybody else’s, and you can go into the dining hall like any other student with a meal swipe and get a meal.”
The Swipe Out Hunger program works to end the stigma around food insecurity by providing a more anonymous way for students to receive meals. Also, Zimmerman said that when students swipe into a dining hall, they can maintain normalcy and feel included in the typical social experience of eating at the dining hall with friends.
However, the normalization of certain behaviors on college campuses sometimes prevents students experiencing food or housing insecurity from seeking assistance. Armstrong said when people use the phrases “I’m broke” or “I’m starving” to exaggerate or dramatize their situations, people that may actually experience these issues to a more extreme degree may be less likely to obtain necessary resources.
Armstrong and Davidson said that they encourage people to actively listen to the experiences of others so that they can discern when someone may be experiencing food or housing insecurity.
“If we’re actively listening to people when they’re talking about their experiences, that’s when awareness is able to be brought to light,” Armstrong said.
The Office of The Dean of Students has recently worked with resident assistants, advisors and people at financial services so that they can learn to identify students with these unmet needs and refer them to such programs.
In addition to Swipe Out Hunger, a number of initiatives on campus work to provide resources for students experiencing these struggles.
The Food Recovery Network, a registered student organization, donates leftover food from Russell Dining Hall to the Newark Empowerment Center for both students and locals to eat. Twice a year, Dining Services donates to Delaware Food Bank, according to Moore. She said Dining Services also partners with eight different local churches to prepare meals for the homeless when it is less than 24 degrees outside.
Moore said that in the week of Dec. 5 to 13, in the Harrington Provisions On Demand (POD) and the Pencader POD, students will have the opportunity to use points, Flex points or their own money to purchase the contents of a bag on display. The following week, Dining Services will donate the purchased items to the university’s food pantry, Blue Hen Bounty, at Science, Technology and Advanced Research (STAR) Campus for graduate students who work there.
In terms of housing, the Office of the Dean of Students provides students with housing insecurity solutions on a case-by-case basis. They make use of the Student Crisis Fund, to provide low income students with housing accommodations as a result of unforeseen circumstances. Additionally, Davidson said they refer students to the Commitment to Delawareans program, which provides low income students who graduated from Delaware high schools the opportunity to receive grants that pay for tuition, food and housing.
Davidson said that low-income and graduate students most often deal with housing and food insecurity. Often, the stipends that graduate students receive, according to Davidson, bring them well below the poverty line. However, their taxable income includes their tuition, so in many cases they are not eligible for food stamps. Many graduate students also have several dependents.
While the Office of the Dean of Students does not directly assist graduate students, graduate students can receive assistance from programs like Swipe Out Hunger and the Student Crisis Fund.
“Because students are finding out about [the Swipe Out Hunger initiative] and because we’re telling any and everyone we can about it, that is helping to ensure that folks understand that they are entitled to a nutritious meal and that [food insecurity] doesn’t have to be their reality,” Armstrong said.