How would an anthropologist study student food insecurity?
When I first began working at Eastern Kentucky University in the fall of 2018, I taught a module on food insecurity in order to encourage students to pursue applied projects in our local food system. As I presented the syllabus on the first day of class, I saw a number of raised eyebrows and cocked heads. One student slowed me down: “Dr. Green, what do you mean by ‘food insecurity’?” Great question. I explained that food insecurity is a continuum, from the choices students might have to make between eating the food they want and buying the textbooks they need, to outright hunger where a person might not have enough to eat. I saw some heads nod, but little did I realize how pervasive and relevant this concept was to a large majority of my students. Informal discussions in my classrooms tended to reveal higher-than-average levels of food insecurity, with more than a quarter of students experiencing reduced quality to reduced caloric intakes. Conversation with my students reflected a constant negotiation between attending classes, caring for family, getting to work, studying, and finding time to not only eat but to eat well. These experiences bring me to my question: How should we as anthropologists and educators be studying our students’ food insecurity. And what should we do about it?
Here’s what we know
Food insecurity is defined by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) on a continuum. Low food security occurs when an individual reports reduced quality, variety, or desirability in their diet. Very low food security, or hunger, occurs when an individual reports reduced food intake as well as reduced weight. Food insecurity among college students is reportedly between 14 and 59 percent, rates that are well above the national average of 12.7 percent. The growth in student food insecurity can be attributed both to the demographic shifts in the college student population as well as the rising costs of tuition, housing, goods and services. Food insecurity impacts students’ capacity to succeed at school, from the experiences of anxiety, stigma, and shame that impact mental health, the challenges of poor academic performance due to an incapacity to concentrate or purchase textbooks, and the inability to participate in extracurricular and curricular resume and health-building activities.
Here’s what we don’t know
When it comes to understanding how students cope, I wonder if the livelihoods framework would aid us in conceptualizing the resources students do and do not have access to. What trade offs do students make in order to reach livelihood security? What forms of capital do students have access to, and who controls access to the capital and resources they need? What if we put our skills as applied anthropologists to use to determine the value of the growing network of food pantries across college campuses? My institution has established a food pantry to address these needs, yet we are not sure that the pantry is mitigating the effects of food insecurity on students so that they can achieve during college and beyond. Additionally, how is the provisioning of particular foods (namely non-perishables) reproducing stigma, structural violence and symbolic violence as students internalize a “ramen” mentality—that our collective unwanted foods are the only aid of which they are deserving. Andy Fisher’s Big Hunger speaks most strongly to this in its description of food pantries and their reproduction of the privilege of corporate charity and the marginality of those in need.
My post is offered as a starting point for discussion and hopeful collaboration. We are growing SAFN’s presence on Anthropology News in combination with SAFN’s blog FoodAnthro. I hope to bring anthropology more fully into the discussion of our students’ well-being, through the lens of food insecurity but perhaps more fully through structural and symbolic violence, through the livelihoods framework and through an applied anthropology that seeks to theorize and evaluate the programs our universities have created to mitigate the effects of an unequal system of higher education.
Amanda Green is an assistant professor of anthropology at Eastern Kentucky University.
Cite as: Green, Amanda. 2019. “Food for Thought.” Anthropology News website, March 13, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1116