Food for Thought

When asked to think about a topic for my blog post, one of the first things that came to mind was the work of a committee I convened this past summer, made up of administrators, faculty, and students. The group was charged with examining issues related to food and food insecurity within our student population. This is an issue that has been receiving increased attention nationally. On our campus, a number of student clubs and individuals have brought their interest in this topic to my attention.

We began our work by exploring what has been happening on other college campuses. We looked at many of your web sites, and spoke with many representatives from your schools to get a fuller picture of the national landscape. At NYU, we were especially interested in what was happening at private universities, although it was also critical to learn about the programs in place at publics, as so many have strong resources around food. A hearty thank you to all the folks we spoke with at so many schools across the country!

I was struck at both the variety of support offered, and at the common themes that ran through our conversations. We learned about food banks, co-op grocery stores, community gardens, free kitchens, peer-to-peer meal sharing, cooking and budgeting classes, and vouchers and stipends.  Colleagues across the country spoke about the range of need that can be experienced by students -- from those who may need some temporary assistance getting through an unexpected financial setback, to those who have more chronic situations, or those who might have food insecurities related to other serious issues such as domestic violence and homelessness. Another frequent conversation involved the tension that can happen when we talk about food insecurity on campuses -- might this not lead people to think our tuition is simply too high? Our dining services not robust enough?  However, those assumptions are too simplistic and do not capture the layers and nuances of how students may experience food insecurity. And those who engage in this work know it is critical not to let possible misconceptions interfere with providing a student in genuine need with compassion and support.  

Moving forward on our campus, the committee decided to focus on a pilot program, Courtesy Meals, developed by Dining Services in conjunction with Student Affairs, that provides the equivalent of $75 to be used in our campus dining locations as a short term bridge stipend to any student who expresses an immediate need for meals. We are asking students using Courtesy Meals to complete an anonymous short survey, using the validated six item household food security survey developed by the USDA, so that we can begin to collect some data about our population.

As our community's conversations around food continue, it is noteworthy how many departments, offices, and student organizations intersect with topics related to food. In addition to those seeking to address immediate food needs, we also saw great interest from those committed to increasing the availability of sustainably-produced food on campus, and those dedicated to best managing food surplus (we have two student clubs dedicated to connecting university events and dining halls with local service agencies). Another key area was education around nutrition, food shopping and food preparation, especially for those on a budget (I feel we have all experienced situations where the healthiest food options were also the most costly!). The faculty of NYU's Nutrition and Food Studies department, and its associated student club, are eager to expand their programs in these areas, and deliver them to a wider student audience. This entire process has truly been an example of the best kind of collaboration in higher education -- from the many colleges and universities that so freely shared their best practices, to the range and diversity of offices both academic and student service-based, all sharing a commitment to better understand and alleviate food insecurities. 

Marc Wais
Senior Vice President for Student Affairs
New York University