Last Monday, student leaders from UConn and other colleges in the area met with CT political leaders, most notably Senator Chris Murphy, to discuss food insecurity at higher education institutions. For those unfamiliar with the term, food insecurity is defined as “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.” Food insecurity is a significant problem for college students; as many as one in three nationally struggle with the issue. The number is closer to one in five at UConn, still too large a figure when it comes to nutrition.
Aiming to combat this problem is UConn Access to Food Effort (UCAFE), an organization founded by students Wanjiku (Wawa) Gatheru ’20 (CAHNR) and Abhishek Gupta ’20 (CLAS). The group, which is backed by a $4,000 UConn IDEA grant, began by conducting surveys to ascertain the extent of food insecurity on campus. With data in hand, UCAFE moved onto implementing pop-up food closets to get healthy food to those who need it. They hope to eventually establish a permanent food pantry in Storrs, similar to those at other colleges in the area.
While there is currently action being taken in the right direction, a number of obstacles still remain. First, funding and infrastructure is lacking. While $4,000 is a good start, more resources are needed to establish something like a permanent food pantry on campus. There is also the matter of finding a suitable location. Either an area of a building on campus has to be repurposed, or an alternative method (such as a truck or bus) can be utilized. On a positive note, there are a number of models upon which UConn can base their system. It’s simply a matter of finding the arrangement that works best and then securing the necessary funds.
The other major obstacle is the stigma associated with relying on food pantries. Many students might be embarrassed about using a charity service, but they shouldn’t be. If you need help or assistance at any point in your life, you shouldn’t be afraid to ask for it. Making sure you have access to quality food should take precedence over a misguided sense of pride. However, it can still be difficult to overcome ingrained values about the importance of lifting yourself up. If a pantry is established, organizers must work to fight negative perceptions about those who use it. Putting the pantry in a visible location can help to normalize it; if people are walking by it all the time it becomes ordinary. Furthermore, educating students about the statistics helps show that this is a problem many face. When people understand they are not alone and are encouraged to pursue dialogue it helps break stigmas.