Two days since his last meal, Deshaun Rice (COL ’19) cannot concentrate. Fatigue seeps in. Words blur together. He sees things from the corners of his eyes — things that are not actually there.
Hunger was never something Rice expected to encounter at Georgetown University. He thought college would provide an escape from the poverty and insecurity of life in his hometown, Memphis, Tenn. Instead, he frequently finds himself running out of swipes on his meal plan, money to spend on food and energy to attend class.
“You get to class, you are expected to be alert, attentive, responsive and things of that nature,” Rice said in an interview with The Hoya. “But you can’t if you’re going around and you haven’t eaten for two or three days.”
Food insecurity is not anomalous among college students nationwide. When the Wisconsin HOPE Lab and Temple University released their report on food insecurity April 4, the study found 36 percent of surveyed college students across the country reported experiences of food insecurity in the 30 days prior to being surveyed.
The study, which defines food insecurity as the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate food, is the most comprehensive of its time, gathering data from over 43,000 students at 66 schools in 20 states and Washington, D.C.
At Georgetown, food insecurity is a gnawing problem for the student body. A 2016 survey conducted by the Georgetown University Student Association found 54 percent of the 351 students surveyed — two-thirds of whom received need-based financial aid — responded that they experienced food insecurity at Georgetown due to cost, often at least once a week.
The University View
According to university spokesperson Bethany Imondi, resources offered by the Georgetown Scholarship Program — a source of financial and academic support for first-generation and low-income students — serve students who are vulnerable to food insecurity. One such resource, the “GSP Break Grocery Stipend,” provided $50,000 of GSP funds in the last year to spend on food when campus dining options were closed.
Imondi also cited new food options and more flexible meal plans implemented on campus this year as helping better meet the needs of the community.
Currently, meal plans cost anywhere from $1,186 to $2,948.50 per semester for undergraduates. These plans can take the form of either 75, 155 or 150 prepaid meals in the block plan, 12, 14 or 18 meals per week in the weekly plan or unlimited meals in the all access plan.
“Georgetown meets the full-need of students who require financial assistance paying for college, which includes tuition, housing and meal expenses,” Imondi wrote in an email to The Hoya.
But for GSP student Elisabeth Kutek (MSB ’21), this assistance is still not enough to alleviate vulnerability to hunger. Kutek said time proves to be as much of a constraint as does money, as she struggles to find options available on her meal plan that fit into her busy schedule.
Kutek gets out of class at 3:15 p.m. most days, when the upstairs portion of O’Donovan Hall is closed and healthy on-campus dining options are scarce. She then often attends events or meetings that end after Leo’s closes at 8 p.m. She said that the late-night options of Royal Jacket and Bulldog Tavern do little to satisfy her hunger.
“It sucks to say that you have food insecurity and for people to say, ‘But you could eat this,’” Kutek said. “I might want a healthier option, but because I can’t afford a healthier option, I’m not allowed one? It’s interesting how food can turn into a privilege.”
Mariama Barry (NHS ’19) said her experiences with food insecurity arise from her dietary restrictions as a Muslim student, which preclude her from eating products that are not certified to be halal. She said she constantly worried about finding nutritional, reliable and affordable options at Leo’s before ultimately deciding this burden was not worth the price of her meal plan.
Each semester since her freshman year, Barry cut down her meal plan until she fully eliminated it this semester. She said that since she started cooking, her health has improved.
“Last semester I lost like 15 pounds, whereas this semester, I am staying at a constant weight level,” Barry said. “I’m not about to walk all the way down the hill to the other side of campus for food that I am not sure if I would want to eat.”
A Teacher’s Take
Psychology professor Paul Merritt, who himself had brushes with food insecurity during his time in college, said skipping meals could have deleterious effects on students’ learning and well-being.
“When you don’t have sufficient nutrition, you can’t function; you can’t sustain your attention. Your mind wanders; you get headaches,” Merritt said in an interview with The Hoya. “Worrying about where you’re going to find your next meal, whether or not you’re going to have enough money, that also has some pretty significant consequences for cognition and mood and health.”
Inspired by his college struggles with food insecurity and the findings of the Wisconsin HOPE Lab-Temple University study, Merritt sent out a survey to his two nearly 100-student psychology classes asking for their experiences April 5.
Merritt found the results shocking. Of the 168 respondents, 11 students said that in the last month they did not eat for three or more full days because they did not have enough money for food. Seventeen students skipped eating for a full day within the past month, and 2o students said they lost weight because they could not afford food.
“This whole thing just really upsets me,” Merritt said. “This place is stressful enough.”
Following the survey, Merritt asked students to submit comments and suggestions for how to improve food accessibility on campus. The result is a 55-page document of his students’ proposed solutions, such as developing a system to donate meal swipes to other students, lengthening on-campus dining hours and establishing a food pantry on campus.
“The students are clearly unhappy with the current state of meal plans and on-campus dining,” Merritt wrote in a report summarizing his findings.
The last solution — establishing a food pantry on campus — has been a focus of student activists’ efforts to alleviate food insecurity.
Madison Álvarez (SFS ’21), who now is a deputy chief of staff for the GUSA administration of Sahil Nair (SFS ’19) and Naba Rahman (SFS ’19) after having previously serving as a vice chair of GUSA’s socio-economic advocacy policy team, said the movement has a long legacy at Georgetown.
“About eight years ago, a bunch of admins got together and tried to create a food pantry, and there was no centralized space,” Álvarez said. “And without student support, things tend to fall apart. So we’re kind of picking up those pieces.”
The efforts to create a food pantry called “Hoya Hub” are being spearheaded by the GUSA socio-economic advocacy team and supported by a laundry list of campus organizations, from student groups like service fraternity Alpha Phi Omega and Students of Georgetown, Inc., to university partners like GSP, the LGBTQ Resource Center and Campus Ministry.
Off-campus partners, such as Safeway, Trader Joe’s and Hungry Harvest, a company that delivers misshapen produce, are also set to contribute food to stock the pantry.
Caroline Barnes (COL ’19), the previous GUSA administration’s socio-economic advocacy chair and Hoya Hub coordinator, said the initiative was modeled after existing food pantries at universities across the country, particularly the student-run food pantry at The George Washington University known as “The Store.”
The Store, which opened in 2016 and is managed by the GWU Center for Student Engagement and a student organization, allows students who wish to access the pantry anonymously after they complete a request form.
Though the Hoya Hub team is still seeking a permanent location for the pantry, the current plan envisions a five-year, three-phase model, including beginning by providing nonperishables as part of a pilot program to be improved upon based on need and feedback, and the eventual establishment of a permanent space.
“It’s a trust and honor system, where you’re still answering Google forms and filling out that you’re going and what you’re getting, but it’s pretty much an open space,” Barnes said.
Álvarez said that while her hope was to have a Hoya Hub prototype operational by the end of the semester, the administration has stalled progress in securing and even inspecting potential sites, lengthening the timeline.
In the meantime, to increase awareness of the problem among students and administrators alike, the Hoya Hub team plans to launch a media campaign and circulate a petition in support of the Hub.
Barnes and Álvarez also noted that they hope to someday expand the Hoya Hub beyond food options to include items like pots and pans, school supplies and clothing for students to borrow.
“We also want to be a source of advocacy in the long term, so once we are able to meet full need, to work to actively combat the stigma around food insecurity and look at the larger systemic issues that lead to this problem existing in the first place,” Álvarez said.
The team has also announced an end-of-year food collection initiative, partnering with the Yates Field House to collect nonperishables during study days and the exam period from April 30 to May 12.
“There’s excitement at the student level, it’s just, how do we translate that into something that the admin can see we’re behind on this?” Álvarez said. “Because it really is a national movement, too, and Georgetown is now officially late to the game.”
A Greater Significance
Fax Victor (COL ’19), the GSP outreach and strategic membership chair, is collaborating with the Hoya Hub initiative after conducting research about food pantries at peer institutions, such as Duke University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, over the summer.
But Victor stressed that once Hoya Hub is established, he would like to see changes implemented at the policy level.
“Our next task is figuring out how we can deal with food insecurity on a greater scale,” Victor said. “It’s about how we can create policies that are sustainable for the next class. A food pantry is great, but it’s like a band aid effort.”
Specifically, Victor hopes to challenge the default 14-meals-per-week option for students on financial aid, which he said leaves students short one meal per day. Weekly meal plans are also available in 18- or 12-meals-per-week options.
“So the fact that we have, as the default option, 14 meals weekly, that means that seven meals are gone,” Victor said in an interview with The Hoya. “How can we expect students in general, not just GSP students, to really produce and be their best self with only two-thirds of the nutrition?”
Kutek said that broadening the conversation on Georgetown’s campus about the roots of food insecurity is necessary to find sustainable solutions to combat student hunger.
“Besides offering food, are we doing anything to have conversation about the types of identities that suffer from food insecurity?” Kutek said. “Are we going to talk about — are we just going to institute this resource to solve the problem or are we going to talk about where the problem roots from and where it comes from?”
Rice agrees. He wants the university to be more transparent and informative about food options on and around campus during the New Student Orientation program so that students can make smart purchasing decisions and nutritional choices.
In the meantime, Rice said hunger may prevent some students from fulfilling their potential in learning.
“Maybe if they understood how many students do go some days without eating, maybe they would address it,” Rice said. “It’s a lot of students who don’t eat, two, three days sometimes.”