A working group that aims to combat food insecurity on campus had its first formal meeting March 20. Dean of Students Rosalyn Eaton `87 formed the group following her realization that multiple organizations on campus were already addressing the issue separately.
Food insecurity – or the lack of access to enough nutritious food – became apparent to SGA President Sarah Freyermuth `19 and Vice President Abbie Haug `19 after they were told that a professor was running a food bank out of their office during the fall semester of 2019.
“The professor was running out of food, all the food was being used,” Haug said. “For me, that was the wake-up call.”
At St. Olaf, the issue of food insecurity is not readily apparent because most students are required to be on a meal plan, Haug and Student Life Senator Read Karsell `21 said. Students can, however, qualify for a partial meal plan or no meal plan if they live in honor houses, off campus or have specific medical or religious dietary restrictions. Students may seek exemptions for other reasons, too, Haug said.
“I’ve heard, anecdotally, stories of students exaggerating those reasons because they couldn’t afford the meal plan,” Haug said.
Haug also speculated that some students might make the decision to live off campus because purchasing and preparing their own meals could be more affordable than what the College offers. This could, however, also result in students eating less to save money, Haug said.
Karsell is also concerned about the impact of requiring students to be on a meal plan.
“By requiring the meal plan, we are putting up barriers and being exclusive to some people,” Karsell said.
Abby Olson `19, Maddy Chiu `19 and Mollie McBride`19 have gained some insight into food insecurity at St. Olaf through their research into the College’s room and board plans for their sociology and anthropology 373 course.
“Although our research is still in the early stages, we’re finding that students most at risk of or experiencing food insecurity are students with severely strained financial resources,” Olson wrote in an email. “These students are forced to make decisions that maximize their economic resources, one of which is opting for a partial or no-meal plan.”
Olson echoed Haug’s sentiments, and said that the money saved from switching to a partial or no meal plan often goes towards other expenses.
“Students are spending it on other, sometimes more immediate needs –tuition, health insurance, plane tickets, taxes, or other essentials like textbooks, computers, or winter clothing,” Olson said.
The new working group, which will aim to address these issues, includes Freyermuth and Haug, Eaton, Karsell, Bon Appetit employees, Director of the Taylor Center for Equity and Inclusion María Pabón, Associate College Pastor Katie Fick and Director of Financial Aid Carly Eichhorst.
Food Insecurity During Breaks
This academic year, the College implimented a new meal plan to be used by students during breaks – over spring break, students were given $15 a day to spend at the Cage. The new measure was established in response to food service difficulties some students faced when many students leave campus and Stav Hall closes.
“It was sometimes difficult to go buy food because my friends and I did not have a car,” Seda Bagiryan `21 wrote in an email. “It was especially difficult to buy food on the winter breaks.”
Eating over breaks was also difficult for Francisca Matono `20 because attaining cooking supplies was challenging, small residence hall kitchens force students to wait while somebody else cooked and students had to pay out of pocket for groceries.
Ana Sofia Gonzalez `20 also found grocery shopping at Target and Cub Foods during breaks expensive. As a result, she often found herself buying “mostly cheap stuff like cereal and mac and cheese and pasta,” Gonzalez wrote in an email.
Eichhorst said in spring of 2017 the College learned that students were struggling to acquire adequate food over breaks when meal service was not included in the meal plan.
Bagiryan, Matono, Gonzalez and Bridget Asamoah-Baffour `21 all said the new break meal plan has made it easier for them to acquire food when Stav closes. Asamoah-Baffour found the Cage’s hours challenging, however, as the Cage would close at 3 p.m. – she said this made eating difficult given her work schedule.
Despite the new break meal plans, some students still seem to be dealing with food insecurity, Karsell said.
“Students who were staying over break were just living off of cups of ramen,” Karsell said. “There’s confusion as to how that’s happening because over breaks, Bon Appetit offers food plans.”
The kinds of issues students faced during breaks prior to the new meal plan can be at their worst during the summer, Haug said. This is because some students may find the summer meal plan too expensive and the College does not provide transportation to grocery stores, she added.
Dean of Residence Life Pamela McDowell sent a March 22 email announcing the addition of a refrigerator and microwave to every residence hall room. The appliances were added in part to allow for students who stay during breaks to store and reheat food from the Cage in their own rooms, McDowell said.
The appliances will also be useful for students staying on campus during the summer who will not have as much access to Stav Hall or the Cage, McDowell said. Assistant Dean of Students Joshua Lee echoed these statements at a April 9 Senate meeting. The addition of these appliances is part of providing for students over breaks, Lee said. The refrigerators and microwaves will be installed in July.
Karsell and Haug said the working group still does not have enough information to recommend any concrete policy changes. Haug and Freyermuth are currently working on a survey and, pending Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval, and they hope to have it out in late April or early May to inform food policy changes. They hope to recommend changes for the summer months when students living on campus are not required to have a meal plan.
Both Haug and Karsell also suggested students could donate meals to be used in the summer months or over breaks at some point each semester. This could be one way to raise money within the St. Olaf community for this issue, they said.
“It’s interesting that we make all of this money and then we donate it outside of our community when there are community members here that are struggling with food insecurity,” Haug said.
For those working on the issue of food insecurity, solutions are still being determined.
“When St. Olaf looks at it, a goal would be that every student gets at least two meals per day, this would include over breaks,” Karsell said.