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‘The prevalence is dishonorable’: Food insecurity exacerbated by UC Berkeley meal plans

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MAY 03, 2019

In one semester, campus junior Jae Won Sim lost about 30 pounds — and not because he wanted to.

Sim first stepped foot on the UC Berkeley campus as a freshman in 2014 and has since suffered from severe financial burdens and food insecurity that have forced him to leave campus, often for semesters at a time.

During his time away from the campus community, Sim constantly questioned whether he would be able to come back to complete his bachelor’s degree.

“Some people have everything covered,” Sim said. “Food and housing is part of basic survival. Some people have a dream of (studying) here, and they can’t afford to study because they have to work to eat.”

But Sim is not alone.

A food access and security study conducted by the UC system in 2016 found that 48 percent of undergraduate students and 25 percent of graduate students across the UC system suffer from food insecurity.

Additionally, a 2016-17 pilot survey created by the UC Berkeley Basic Needs Security Committee found that more than half of campus students who received support from a food, housing or financial service identified as experiencing “very low food security.”

In comparison, about 12.5 percent of American households identified as food-insecure in 2016.

Of the students who responded to the UC Berkeley survey, first-generation college students self-reported the highest rates of food insecurity.

According to campus nutritional sciences professor Marc Hellerstein, who also teaches endocrinology and nutrition at UC San Francisco, food insecurity is often correlated with race and socioeconomic status.

Hellerstein added that food insecurity and malnourishment can cause lower grade-point averages as well as exacerbate physical and mental health challenges.

Sim said many individuals who are food-insecure seek out cheaper food options, which, according to Hellerstein, often include more sugar and fewer fruits and vegetables. Hellerstein added that this type of diet makes food-insecure individuals more prone to physical conditions, including diabetes and obesity.

Food insecurity also negatively affects an individual’s psychological well-being, Hellerstein said, making them more likely to experience sleep deprivation, extreme stress, anxiety and depression.

This, in turn, may affect a student’s academic success.

“You have to have the food and housing set before you can do anything else,” Sim said. “If I am hungry and worrying about rent, I can’t sit down and write an essay.”

In an attempt to combat food insecurity, Cal Dining has taken steps in recent years to revamp its meal plans — but according to some students, not all of the changes it has made have been beneficial.

Cal Dining services: Meal plans, past and present

As a freshman, Sim found Cal Dining to be too expensive. He also said it failed to provide him with enough food.

Because he was only able to afford about one meal per day, Sim would stuff himself.

As a freshman, Sim’s meal plan was different from the one students living on campus have today, yet many students experience similar challenges.

The 2018-19 academic year marked a shift in Cal Dining meal plans, as the campus transitioned from meal points to meal swipes in an effort to address food insecurity.

“The well-being of our students is important,” said campus spokesperson Adam Ratliff in an email.

Under the previous system, each meal point was equivalent to $1, and every meal offered in the dining halls was worth a different number of points. Students previously had a choice between two different meal plans, including the Blue Plan, which provided about 10 meals per week, according to Ratliff.

Under the new system, each meal is worth one swipe. Once a student uses up all of their swipes for the week, they can use flex dollars — which can also be used at select cafés and markets around campus — to purchase meals at the dining halls.

When swipes were implemented, the Blue Plan expanded to provide students with 12 meals per week in addition to flex dollars. Meanwhile, the Gold Plan offers unlimited swipes to students, but for an additional $600 per semester.

Unlike meal points, meal swipes under the Blue Plan do not carry over into the subsequent week, nor into the subsequent semester. Flex dollars, however, carry over from the fall semester to the spring semester. The Blue Plan is included with the room and board fees associated with living on campus.

According to Ratliff, financial aid can be applied toward the cost of a meal plan.

Implementing meal swipes was not the only meal plan change made at the start of the academic year — Cal Dining also discontinued the option to take meals to go.

“The model allows students to come and go as they please,” Ratliff said in an email. “Our Meal Plan system reduces food and solid waste, while encouraging our residents to build connections and communities with their fellow students.”

Ratliff added that students can seek out quicker dining options at campus convenience stores and restaurants, including The Den and Bear Market.

Two meals too many

Ratliff previously told The Daily Californian that Cal Dining hoped the transition from 10 meals per week to 12 would help combat food insecurity.

The campus’s intentions backfired.

Previously, when the Blue Plan covered 10 meals per week, students living on campus were eligible for CalFresh, a program that provides government assistance and food stamps to those who are food-insecure.

The recent increase to 12 meals per week, however, disqualifies about 90 percent of students on a meal plan from eligibility for CalFresh, according to Basic Needs Security Committee chair Ruben Canedo. Had the meal plan been increased to 11 meals per week instead of 12, students would still be eligible for CalFresh, Canedo said.

Canedo added that the Blue Plan is inadequate for students to fulfill their nutritional needs.

Though some students living on campus have become ineligible for CalFresh because of the change in meal plans, the program continues to serve students who pay for an off-campus meal plan, which provides students with between five and 10 meals per week.

‘Just come on down’: Addressing the basic needs crisis

Though Sim has struggled with food insecurity for the past few years, he has found several sources of assistance on campus.

About 1,300 campus students, including Sim, have benefited from the CalFresh program, which provides individuals with an additional monthly food budget through an electronic benefit transfer card. The card can be used at major chain grocery stores, including Costco, and at the Berkeley Student Food Collective and Bear Market.

“Ever since I got CalFresh, I pretty much don’t spend money on food,” said Sim, who at one point worked three jobs to sustain himself. “Because of CalFresh, I know if I make $700 a month (for housing), I’m even.”

Though Sim and campus senior Vanessa Tsan have both benefited from CalFresh, they still have to budget their money carefully.

“Even though we have Calfresh, we’re not splurging,” Tsan said. “We’re still being smart about what we buy and how long it will last us.”

Many students, however, are ineligible for the program. These students, including those who are undocumented, can seek help from the campus Food Assistance Program.

Sim and Tsan said they have also benefited from the UC Berkeley Food Pantry.

Tsan learned about the pantry after her freshman year from the upperclassmen she moved in with.

Though Tsan said she initially experienced a feeling of “not wanting to be seen” at the pantry, she eventually came to feel excited about the new food items available to her.

Stocked with a range of foods, including fresh produce and perishable items, the pantry provides emergency food assistance to anyone with a Cal 1 Card, including undergraduate and graduate students as well as faculty.

About 1,000 people use the pantry on a weekly basis and 22,000 take advantage of it within a year, said campus senior and UC Berkeley Food Pantry coordinator Stella Zhu. She added that the pantry’s engagement is projected to increase by 30 percent every year.

“Just come on down,” Zhu said, citing the pantry’s official policy. “We will provide you with whatever you need, as much as you need, however often you need.”

Zhu added that the pantry works on an honor system — anybody in need can access its resources with no questions asked.

Students can also turn to the campus Basic Needs Center, which provides assistance to students who suffer from food, housing or financial insecurity.

Despite the plethora of campus basic needs services available, however, 89 percent of people surveyed by the Basic Needs Security Committee said they were unaware that the campus offers more than 10 of these services.

Canedo said the committee is working to increase communication with students through a messaging platform. He also encouraged students to “come in and apply so we can support them.”

‘Put students first’: UC-wide efforts to combat food insecurity

With nearly half of UC undergraduates and a quarter of graduate students experiencing food insecurity, this problem is far from local.

Despite this common challenge across the UC system, different campuses have taken their own unique approaches.

UC San Diego’s lowest meal plan for this year and next year offers students about 10 meals per week, meaning that they may be eligible for CalFresh.

UCSD and UC Riverside also provide campus food pantries.

UCSD’s food pantry, which saw 19,938 visits during the 2017-18 academic year, is available to all undergraduate and graduate students. In 2018, UC Riverside’s food pantry saw 5,906 visits from both undergraduate and graduate students.

In the spirit of “putting students first,” UCSD Housing, Dining and Hospitality, or HDH, annually donates $111,150 of the funds it receives from its contract with Coca-Cola to the campus’ basic needs efforts, according to UCSD spokesperson Christine Clark. This initiative will continue through fall 2023.

HDH is currently working to establish basic needs resources for students suffering from food insecurity, as well as an emergency meal program that will be available to all registered UCSD students.

In a similar attempt to combat food insecurity, UC Riverside provides a program that allows students to donate money to their food-insecure peers at campus stores.

The campus is also working on a cross-campus collaboration called “Swipe Out Hunger,” which converts unused meal swipes into money for students who are food-insecure.

Additionally, UC Riverside is currently building a student kitchen that will be used to teach food-insecure students how to cook on a low budget.

“They’re here to fulfill their careers, their education,” said UC Riverside spokesperson Sandra Baltazar Martínez. “That’s what we want them to do.”

Back to campus: Looking forward

Similar to its sister schools, UC Berkeley has recently implemented changes and initiatives to combat the still-prevalent issue of food insecurity.

The 2019 ASUC elections resulted in the passage of the Basic Needs Referendum, which will expand assistance to students who are food-insecure, regardless of whether they are eligible for CalFresh, as well as students facing housing insecurity.

The referendum will also support the newly established Basic Needs Center, which will lose its only permanent source of funding from the UC system next year.

Cal Dining unveiled a new set of meal plans in mid-March for students living on and off campus, which will be implemented beginning fall 2019.

Under the new plans, students will have a choice between three meal plans instead of two.

The plans for students living on campus include the Blue Plan, which will still include 12 meal swipes per week; the Gold Plan, which will offer students 10 meal swipes per week; and the newly introduced Unlimited Plan, which will provide unlimited meal swipes.

These three plans will also include more flex dollars than the current plans, which, according to Canedo, could potentially disqualify more students from CalFresh.

Though there is much to be determined regarding the future of food insecurity, Hellerstein said the campus must make resources available to address this issue.

“It’s really impossible for me to imagine being hungry and an excellent scholar,” Hellerstein said. “The prevalence (of food insecurity) is dishonorable. It’s horrible.”

Contact Mallika Seshadri at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @SeshadriMallika.

MAY 03, 2019

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