This is part 3 of a three-part series by Sarah Gordon on food insecurity — the inability to afford nutritious, or even enough, food. In part 1, Gordon introduces the popular misconceptions about food insecurity. Local experts say the problem is more systemic than most people are aware. In part 2, Gordon looks at two of the larger groups of Americans who are experiencing food insecurity — seniors and children. Not only are they more vulnerable and susceptible to hunger and malnutrition than most of the population, they’re also less able to improve their situations.
“I think that a lot of people assume that all of their classmates eat, but it’s not the case,” says Mercedes Jones. “One of the biggest issues that I was concerned about [in developing the Crimson Cupboard] is that it would be here and nobody would use it. And,” she says, “that hasn’t been a problem!”
Jones is the founder of the Crimson Cupboard, the new food pantry on Indiana University’s campus in Bloomington. Opened in December when Jones was a senior in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs, anyone with an ID card from IU can use it. This makes IU one of the latest campuses to join a nationwide trend: In 2008, only four university campuses in the United States had food pantries or other programs that offered free meals to students in need; by April 2016, that number had ballooned to 307.
The food pantry grew out of research that Jones had conducted while she was an intern for the Student Advocates Office this past summer.
Sally Jones, director of the Student Advocates Office and no relation to Mercedes, oversaw that research. The advocates help IU students to resolve personal and academic problems that might otherwise prevent them from progressing in their degree. Problems with food insecurity arise frequently enough in their conversations with students that they decided to conduct a needs assessment to determine the scope of the problem.
They struggled to find students willing to talk about their experiences. “It’s humiliating [for them] to talk about. It’s difficult to admit,” Sally Jones explains.
Instead, they turned to relevant IU employees from the financial aid and bursar’s offices, residence halls, and academic advising divisions for information. The findings were shocking. Behind the familiar image of the ramen-eating college student lurked an even harsher reality: resident assistants using their own money or meal points to feed struggling students, students stealing food or living off of cheap and unhealthy nonperishables, and academic advisors in multiple departments keeping self-funded, informal food pantries in their offices.
The research was conclusive enough for Mercedes Jones to collaborate further with the Student Advocates Office to develop the Crimson Cupboard.
Lost in the gap
Student poverty is on the rise for a number of reasons.
Enrollment of students from low-income backgrounds is growing in correlation with increasing demands for advanced degrees in the job market. While the overwhelming majority of students at IU receive financial support from their families at home, Sally Jones explains that a growing number of students are doing the opposite: trying to send money home to their families while also making ends meet for themselves here. Many of those students were already helping their families when they were in high school, babysitting or contributing to the household income through their part-time jobs.
Increases in tuition, fees, and cost of living that outpace access to financial aid also contribute to the problem. Sally Jones explains, “The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) — the application form used to determine student eligibility for financial support — assumes that there’s going to be a family contribution, even though some families, because of their economic status or their traditions or their beliefs, think, ‘You’re an adult [and therefore should support yourself fully].’ The university also says, ‘You’re an adult, but your parents still have to chip in for your education.’ So you’ve got a crazy double standard.”
Stereotypes tend to depict international students as wealthy, but according to Domonic Potorti, senior student advisor at the Office of International Services, this is frequently not the case. Potorti explains that in order to get an F1 visa, which is the most common type of student visa, applicants must show evidence that they have access to the equivalent of more than $40,000 in liquid assets. Once students get here, though, a number of events can obliterate that cash.
International students face the same financial problems that domestic students face: They can fall ill, or the primary wage-earner in their family can pass away unexpectedly. But they face their own sets of problems, too. Sponsors who promise to cover a student’s expenses can refuse to pay once the student arrives. Graduate students can qualify for visas based on the income they’re promised through a teaching or research stipend, but then they often need to send large portions of that money to support their families in their home countries. Economic and natural disasters in students’ home countries can impact everything from the value of their currency to the infrastructure that allows money to be transferred.
“An example of this would be the collapse of the rial in Iran,” Potorti says. “And Nepal, where people are struggling to make their own living expenses because the infrastructure is gone.”
And unlike domestic students, they have very few legal options to increase their income by getting a job: They’re only eligible to be hired for specific kinds of on-campus jobs and are restricted in the number of hours they can work per week.
The social impact
The stigma experienced by students who struggle to feed themselves is made more complex by the tense relationship between universities and socioeconomic privilege. In a college town like Bloomington, the popular image of the college student is often one of millennial self-absorption — and not without good reason. According to Sally Jones, not only is it true that most students do come from privilege, most of them don’t realize how privileged they are.
“As the size of everything goes up, not only is consumerism conspicuous but not being able to consume becomes conspicuous and embarrassing, which I find really troubling,” she says. “It creates situations where if you can’t get a manicure, it’s embarrassing. So instead of eating, you might choose to get a manicure. I’ve seen that happen.”
The idea of sacrificing food for nail polish may reek of juvenile irresponsibility, but on a different level, it reflects a decision to sacrifice one survival need for another. Strong social networks are the most important safeguard against food insecurity. And college students, especially in their early years and if they come from low-income areas with low rates of university attendance, are socially isolated when they arrive. Meeting the norms of their social groups makes them feel more secure, and for the most vulnerable students, that social security may sometimes feel more important than food security.
The Crimson Cupboard faced controversy in its development because students already have access to community food assistance agencies like Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard and Community Kitchen of Monroe County.
Mercedes Jones’ response to this criticism is twofold. First, students who live in dorm rooms need access to food they can cook without a kitchen. Second, the very presence of the food pantry on campus can reassure struggling students that they’re not alone in battling severe poverty, and that can be enough to encourage them to seek help when they might not otherwise have done so.
“Students come, and this food pantry is for them,” Mercedes Jones says. “Clearly there’s a need. Every student doesn’t have transportation, and, realistically, if you need help and you’re scared to get the help already, you’re not going to get on the city bus and get off and then walk to the food pantry.”
The Crimson Cupboard is the first step in what Sally Jones hopes is a larger mission toward creating a better support system for low-income students at IU. “I think, in a way, adolescence has become more prolonged in our society,” she says. “But where does that leave the students who, at 18, are already helping their family? Their reality is not Mom and Dad providing spending money. I have a tremendous amount of respect for those students, and I find that that part of our population is part of the diversity that I feel most passionate about keeping at IU.”