(Rock Hill, S.C.) — Food insecurity is an issue touching many college campuses across the county, including Winthrop University, where it’s estimated nearly two-fifths of the student body doesn’t have sufficient access to food.
The issue was one of the key topics of discussion at the World of Food Conference last week, which was hosted by the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies at Winthrop.
“Food security and eating well means different things to different students. Obviously many talk about the financial limits they face to eating nutritiously or eating enough to be satisfied or meeting specific dietary or cultural food preferences,” said Nicole Peterson, an associate professor of anthropology at University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
“They often also face challenges of time…to shop, prepare, or even eat food, transportation or even housing. These can limit their ability to eat well.”
Peterson was one of the presenters at the conference Feb. 21-23, which included a number of panel sessions that covered a wide range of food-related topics, such as the role food plays in culture, tourism and literature; community hunger; and health and nutrition.
A number of the discussions focused on food insecurity, as the problem has become a more prevalent on college campuses throughout the nation, including at Winthrop.
A 2018 study, conducted by the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice (formerly Wisconsin HOPE Lab), found 36 percent of university students and 42 percent of community college students said they were food insecure in the 30 days prior to the survey.
The survey included 43,000 students at 66 institutions in 20 states and
the District of Columbia.
However, previous research by the organization found the levels of food insecurity among students may be closer to 50 percent, with nearly of quarter of them experiencing “very low levels of food security that qualify them as hungry.”
At Winthrop, the Department of Human Nutrition conducted a USDA standard survey of 600 students in 2017, which found 38 percent of students had run out of food without having the money to purchase more. It also found that 57 percent of respondents said they could not afford to eat balanced meals.
“We repeated that study last spring and, lo and behold, we found 38 percent are still food insecure,” said Wanda Koszewski, chair of the Human Nutrition department at Winthrop.
“Then this fall at Coastal Carolina, Dr. Sharon Thompson did a survey on South Carolina schools and I think that she might have had a little bit of North Carolina schools in there, and she surveyed Winthrop again and we found 38 percent of our students are food insecure. So we’re pretty comfortable with that number for our campus,” she said.
When students face food insecurity, their physical health is not the only thing that suffers.
“Students who are food insecure are stressed about where and how to eat next. This adds to other stresses about school or life in general. Studies show academic performance suffers,” Peterson said.
For example, the Hope Center found, in a 2016 study, 53 percent of the students who reported food insecurity said they missed a class and 25 percent said they dropped a class because of problems related to hunger.
Efforts to Help
Koszewski said a number of efforts are underway at Winthrop to help improve food security.
“I’m applying for a grant and one of those grants is to start a community garden here on campus. (We will) feature the foods in Thomson (Dining Hall) the first year,” she said.
“We’re hoping that we can donate vegetables for a buck…have the students feel like they’re contributing, but make it an affordable thing so we can get some fresh vegetables to them.”
Koszewski said she hopes, if the grant is approved, the garden will be placed in the area between the Sims Science Building and Dalton Hall, which would allow professors from the nutrition department to discuss the nutritional value of the vegetables.
They also plan to have cooking videos to help show students what they can cook with the vegetables, which would be shared on Instagram, YouTube and Facebook.
Koszewski said she would also like to see a system where students can donate “meal swipes” or Cafe Cash to students who suffer from food insecurity, however there are no plans to implement that at the moment.
In the meantime, Winthrop has created a small food pantry, located in room 247 of the DiGiorgio Campus Center, which is open to all students.
“I just want people to take it. You know, we don’t do any kind of questioning,” said Bethany Marlowe, assistant vice president and dean of students. They can just walk in and get some (food).”
The food pantry is open Monday through Friday, during normal business hours, and students can either enter through room directly or go into the Dean of Students office and ask for access.
Peterson said she hopes the food insecurity panel allows the public to understand what it means to be food insecure and how they can help people facing this issue.
“I hope they are inspired to do something to understand and address food insecurity where they live, find programs that are effective for addressing the underlying causes of food insecurity, not just making sure people can eat today,” Peterson said.
Koszewski said she hopes the discussion helps break the stigma surrounding food insecurity.
“One of the things I’m hoping for at the food conference, when it comes to food insecurity, is getting rid of the stigma; get people to understand why this is happening. It’s not because of financial irresponsibility or laziness. A lot of our students are going to school full time and working sometimes one to two jobs,” she said.
“It’s expensive to go to college and we got to face that fact and that, I think, is one of the reasons that is leading to the issue of food insecurity among college students. Students don’t want to drop out, they need that degree in order to move on to the next goal in life.”