New student organization seeks to alleviate food insecurity on campus

The Food Insecurity Committee stores food donations in their pantry located in the Wesley House. COURTESY PHOTO / ABDUEL HUSSEIN

Beginning this semester, the College of William and Mary’s Food Insecurity Committee will become an official student organization. The new group, which will likely be named Food For All, aims to spread awareness of food insecurity, assists all campus personnel in obtaining food and encourages greater campus involvement in mitigating the issue. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as a lack of consistent access to enough food for a healthy, nutritious life. Various studies have estimated the rate of food insecurity on college campuses to range from 14% to 60%. 

Among first-generation low-income students at the College, a survey conducted by Rachel Smith, a doctoral student at the School of Education, found that 16% struggled with food insecurity from April 2020 to April 2021. The 16% was further broken down into 12% having low food insecurity, 3% having marginal food insecurity and 1% having high food insecurity.

“That’s a good thing that students aren’t really struggling with food insecurity,” Smith said. “However, the question is, what does COVID have to do with that? How many of those students were living at home? I do have that data. I didn’t break it out, though. And if students are at home more, because of COVID, do they have more access to their family’s resources, rather than providing it for themselves while they’re on campus? So there are questions like that that I had. But overall, I was pleased that William and Mary’s population that typically should struggle with food insecurity more compared with their peers, because they’re first-generation low-income, didn’t struggle as much as the national averages would suggest.”

In collaboration with the Wesley Foundation, Food For All strives to establish a campus-wide response to food insecurity and hunger. In spring 2020, the committee staged the Swipe Out Hunger initiative that asked students to donate a meal swipe when they entered the dining halls.

“We would ask any individual, ‘Do you want to donate one meal swipe for a person of faculty, staff member or student in need?’ And I would say about 80% of students who came in through that door were absolutely happy to give a swipe,” Co-founder of Food For All Abduel Hussein ’22 said.

In total, students donated approximately 900 meal swipes that were converted into coupons to be used at the cash registers. While unused meal swipes remained, Pastor Blalock of the Wesley Foundation said that a non-negligible population of people who require assistance exists.

“I still haven’t seen significant numbers of students and faculty and staff utilizing the campus food pantry,” Pastor Blalock said. “But I’ve definitely seen that the students and staff who do utilize it, really utilize it a lot.”

“I still haven’t seen significant numbers of students and faculty and staff utilizing the campus food pantry,” Pastor Blalock said. “But I’ve definitely seen that the students and staff who do utilize it, really utilize it a lot.”

Hussein pointed out that the abrupt COVID-19 stay-at-home order which sent students home could explain why many meal swipes didn’t get used. 

“The Swipe Out Hunger initiative was about two or three months before COVID hit, so students didn’t really have the ability to use the swipes,” Hussein said. “And even the next year, a lot of students were not here. And nobody was doing things in-person. “I’m really excited that this year we have the ability to show everybody we have this opportunity.”

Currently, the organization manages a food pantry in the Wesley House and recruits volunteers to spread the word about their resources. The pandemic and subsequent closure in 2020 put a pause on their operation’s expansion plans, but major developments are in the works.

“One of the dreams we have is that if we really want to do something to address things permanently, you know, off-campus there is a fantastic space that would take time and money to do, but there’s an entire restaurant that’s not being used over in One Tribe Place,” Blalock said.

Blalock explained that they want to convert it into a larger food pantry and, ultimately, a community kitchen.

“And that’s a big question, you know, what’s the level of need?” Blalock said. “But we could renovate and not only have the room for a food pantry but it could even be a kitchen for groups to get together and prepare meals together.”

Blalock and Hussein admitted that the campus kitchen idea is a long shot. In the meantime, their efforts are focused on the community’s immediate needs. 

“I would say our goals are twofold,” Hussein said. “The first goal is, frankly, just advertising and spreading awareness of the issue, not just for people who are food insecure, but also for people who are food insecure. The second thing is functionality, like the food pantry, making sure there are enough volunteers throughout the semester because it can’t be Max every single time because he’s got kids.”

Moreover, Food For All is going to strengthen privacy protections for individuals who utilize extra meal swipes, to offer them a sense of security and remove the stigma around food insecurity.

“What we’re looking at — and this is still in process — is instead of folks coming about the food pantry and getting a card that resembles an ID, that we’ll have a way now to simply, with the students’ permission, put their name and ID number in a confidential form and it goes straight to Sodexo so then they get 10 meal swipes added to their meal plan,” Pastor Blalock said.

Food For All will continue liaising with groups such as the Office of Sustainability, First Generation Low Income organization and Student Accessibility Services to establish a well-rounded system that helps vulnerable community members maintain healthy, energetic lives.

“There seemed to be a lot more awareness across campus, especially among faculty and staff, that there are students who have issues around safe housing and food insecurity,” Blalock said. “But there’s nothing systematic about it yet, we don’t have a campus-wide response to say, ‘Okay, how can we do this in the best possible way together to work on this issue?’”


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