41 percent of university students struggle with food insecurity according to a report published last week by the Hope Center. This is up 5 percent from 2018. The University of Oregon began a pilot program this year called Feed the Flock to address the issue.
On this weekday afternoon in the EMU amphitheater on campus U of O student Kaylee picks up asparagus and other veggies at the Produce Drop.
“I’m a low-income student and even working 30 hours a week, it doesn’t necessarily completely support myself,” says Kaylee. “I would have to go without it because it does take up a large chunk of my monthly budget to be able to buy fresh produce like this.”
This is one of the initiatives of the Feed the Flock program.
Over the last several years the University of Oregon has been trying to better understand food insecurity on campus. Until recently, the work had been largely student-led with Kiara Kashuba’s 2017 senior thesis significantly contributing to this effort. She found U of O students were about on par with national levels of food insecurity.
Program Director for the Student Sustainability Center Dr. Taylor McHolm explains it’s not just that students are scraping by or are making leftovers last three meals.
“But the difference now is that students are in a much different financial situation. And so that equation looks a little bit different now too,” says McHolm. “So, it took folks, I think collectively, years to try to figure out ‘oh this is something that is a problem and this is something that we should be responsible for.’”
McHolm sees this work as fundamental to the university’s mission.
“If the mission of the university is to support the students in terms of both their educational attainments and their professional development and personal development, being hungry is a huge hindrance to that mission,” says McHolm.
In addition to societal stigmas around asking for help, Associate Dean of Students Marcus Langford says the stereotype of the starving student discourages people seeking assistance.
“Going back to this notion of I’m just going to have to eat pork and beans or I’m going to have to eat ramen noodles… And, so because they have been conditioned to think that’s an element of the collegiate experience, they don’t really see themselves as food insecure and they don’t really see that as an important issue,” says Langford. “So, there are a number of students who fall squarely into that category, but don’t put themselves in that number.”
Changing the stigmas is a key effort for staff running the Feed the Flock initiatives. The farmer’s market style of the Produce Drop tries to do this by creating a relaxed and inviting atmosphere.
University of Oregon President Michael Schill funded the one-year pilot program in full for 85 thousand dollars.
Under the initiative, four programs were created this year. They are Ducks Feeding Ducks, Produce Drop, Leftover Textover and SNAP enrollment. The fifth program under this umbrella is the previously existing Student Food Pantry.
McHolm says the definition of food insecurity, which is the lack of access to adequate amounts of healthy, nutritious food, doesn’t give the full picture of the way it actually affects someone’s life. It’s not just more money spent on books means less money for food, social engagement is also hindered.
“The research shows us that students who are likely to graduate in four years are students who tend to feel like they’re a part of the university one way shape or form,” McHolm says.
This could be through extra-curricular activities that are often free, but usually include a social element like going out for pizza after a game or study group. Many students don’t want to be the only one not eating or who can’t afford to pay, so they remove themselves from the situation.
“So that actually ends up to students feeling more isolated, feeling as though they don’t belong and at that point graduation retention numbers start to suffer,” says McHolm. “It’s not just about not having enough food to eat, it’s also about not being able to take part in the rest of the college experience which is fundamental to not just having a good, fun time here, but your academics, as well.”
Since funding was only for this year, one of the next hurdles is figuring out how to pay for these initiatives for the long term. Langford says they’re working on options.
“But I am confident that we will find a way across the institution to continue to support these initiatives and to continue to support students in this way,” Langford says.
McHolm and Langford understand the Feed the Flock program is just beginning to scratch the surface of food insecurity among students. They hope to continue and expand into the future.