Before coming to Berkeley, I was only aware of the problem of food insecurity in a vague, removed sense. In fact, the issue was so far removed from my reality that I had never heard or used the phrase “food insecurity” — instead, I called it “hunger” and was satisfied to think that it only really impacted homeless people holding up cardboard signs and dusty, wide-eyed children in developing nations. With more exposure to the injustice of day-to-day reality, my understanding of this problem started to deepen. I heard people in nonprofit circles talking about food deserts. I became personally disturbed by the mass quantities of waste I saw piling up at the dining commons. I met people who weren’t sure where their next meal was coming from. I learned that the 25 percent of UC Berkeley students report frequently skipping meals in order to save money. My realization was this: It isn’t just poster-children for global poverty alleviation ads who are deeply susceptible to food insecurity but also my classmates, my fellow student employees, my friends. At the recent UC Berkeley FLEJCON, or Financial Literacy and Economic Justice Conference, there were students who vocally expressed this jarring fact: “the free food we’re getting at this conference is the only food some of us will eat today.”
But not all UC Berkeley students have understood the widespread, alarming nature of this problem. Among my economics classmates, the topic of conversation is often a looming midterm, when office hours are scheduled or what internship or research applications are looking like. While economic disparity is something we learn about in our field of study, you’d be hard pressed to find economics majors engaged in involved conversations on this topic. But as an economics student, I have observed that the imminent reality for most economics and business majors is a small and privileged cosmos. This cosmos is so tightly wrapped around personal ambition that making conversation about issues such as where our classmates might find their next meal seems odd and unthinkable. This only intensifies the shame experienced by those who are food-insecure, causing the issue to lurk in the shadows rather than come to light to be addressed.
In my English seminar on food writing, however, I have experienced almost the complete opposite sort of environment. There is no air of competition and no pressure to contribute for participation points. We have conversations about personhood, dignity and equity every week. For crucial conversations to be had and for awareness to truly grip on our campus, people need to gather together, speak up and resolve to learn something about the true state of our community — particularly on the issue of food security. This kind of communication is definitely achievable, whether or not that takes form in a class. It simply takes one or two bold people who are willing to speak up.
We will also need to consider broader measures for change. One such measure that was started in 2013 was the UC Berkeley Food Pantry. The Food Pantry is an emergency relief food supply, available as a resource to any student in need of core food support. Any student can stop by twice a month to obtain free, nutritious food. There are no questions asked — no requirement to demonstrate need or food insecurity. According to the internal operations coordinator Esteban Vasquez, the Food Pantry has been experiencing an increase in activity since February, when there were about 300 visits. The pantry and CalFresh clinics are crucial for the students who use them, but it’s often difficult to get people to know about them in the first place. Students frequently hear about the Food Pantry through word of mouth referrals, and because the Food Pantry is still growing its capacity, it has not yet launched more widespread outreach campaigns.
In trying to think about more ways in which we can combat food insecurity on our school campus, I spoke with Hilary Hoynes, professor of public policy and economics, and the Haas Distinguished Chair in Economic Disparities. “Resources like the Food Pantry are a great start and make a difference for students who use it. But this doesn’t mean that other things don’t need to be done,” Hoynes said. Moreover, she noted that “the complexities of the Blue and Gold Plan are such that aid gets applied only to tuition but not housing and food.” As a result, she encourages us to think about investing in campuswide safety nets beyond the Food Pantry, perhaps feeding programs that supply free or subsidized campus dining meal plans to qualifying candidates. These kinds of safety nets would address the problem of food security from another angle, moving beyond a model that focuses on providing supplemental food relief and allowing the students in need to have a steady, reliable source of nutrition. As Hoynes said, “The bottom line is, it’s not OK that we have undergraduates not eating or only eating one meal a day. It’s even possible that the issue of food insecurity amongst our students could be related to incompletion or drop-out rates. Though we don’t know the answer to that question, it’s one worth exploring.”
The stakes are undeniably high, and we can’t wait around for this problem of food insecurity to solve itself. When students are in financial situations where even the basic necessity of getting a meal is a concern, it becomes much more difficult to actually experience the joys of food and community. Instead of thriving, many students are just trying to get through the day on minimal sleep, food and expenditures. Even those who eat “enough” may still lack adequate nutrition because they may be looking for inexpensive ways to fill up their stomachs. Indeed, the problem of food insecurity is more prevalent than many of us think. Let’s not be ignorant or apathetic about this: Let’s talk about it and work toward an equitably accessible college experience for all students.