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.
Within anthropology, several scholars have contributed to the field through theoretical and applied work. Lisa Henry at the University of North Texas published a qualitative study which captures the complexity and stigma students experience in their food insecurity. When my students read Henry’s essay, many come away with a better self-understanding of their own struggles as food insecure on campus. Nicole Peterson at the University of North Carolina Charlotte has collaborated with UNCC’s Jamil Niner Food Pantry. Through her interviews and surveys with UNCC students, Peterson reveals the failure of the USDA Food Security Survey to capture the specific circumstances of student food insecurity that result from limiting factors beyond finances. These factors include time, transportation, housing, and other demands students must balance. Kristen Borre and Courtney Gallagher at Northern Illinois University, with a focus on differently positioned students, also point out the failures in traditional food security measurements to capture the food insecurity of their students. Borre and Gallagher collect qualitative “food experience” data alongside survey data. I must also pay homage to my own roots at Oregon State University. Sarah Cunningham, Joan Gross, and Nancy Rosenberger brought the issue of food insecurity to our anthropology program, and many of us, including myself, trained as anthropologists by interviewing and surveying students and administrators at OSU about food insecurity. I know there are many more scholars whose paths I haven’t yet crossed. This leads me to wonder if the situation of student food insecurity might call anthropologists to work together across campuses to consider how we should think through and act on the very real suffering of our students.
Here’s what we don’t know
What would it mean to apply our anthropological frameworks to our own students, to take serious the worlds they inhabit? In my own work, I am considering the ways food insecurity is a form of structural and symbolic violence. Structural violence takes hold through the political-economic inequalities inherent to higher education that take their toll on students’ mental and physical health. I have watched as my students’ cars break down, their service sector jobs demand they work late shifts; they must stay home to care for sick children; their scholarship or loans delay funds for textbooks; they care for family members dealing with chronic disease. And in the midst of all this, my students don’t find enough time or money to eat well or do their homework. Symbolic violence manifests itself as students internalize these circumstances as evidence of their own individual failings, and professors reinforce this when they demand doctor’s notes or count students absent for circumstances that are largely outside of their own control. I have walked them to counseling centers, student service centers and food pantries, but I am not confident that the programs we offer students address the deep-seated forms of structural and symbolic violence that they encounter and embody in their daily lives.
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