Addressing Food Insecurity on College Campuses

Imagine not knowing where your next meal will come from, or not being able to feed your child a healthy breakfast before sending them off to school, or not being able to satisfy your growling stomach before a midterm exam. For 600,000 food insecure individuals in the Tampa Bay, Florida, area, these are real issues that they must tackle in their everyday lives.

Practicing anthropology helps play an important role in bringing more awareness and understanding of the complex issues related to food insecurity.

The US Department of Agriculture refers to food insecurity as the lack of reliable access to enough nutritionally adequate food for an active, healthy life for all household members. People who suffer from hunger are diverse, often from hardworking families, and include children, teenagers, senior citizens, veterans, and even college students.

Food banks help address food insecurity issues. Feeding Tampa Bay is a Feeding America-affiliated food bank located in Florida that works hard to ensure its hungry neighbors are being fed. In 2019, Feeding Tampa Bay committed to the bold goal of reaching a Hunger-Free Tampa Bay by the year 2025, which means that every individual across its ten-county service region will have consistent access to healthy meals. This goal is even more crucial as the need for food assistance becomes increasingly apparent during the COVID-19 health crisis.

Feeding Tampa Bay has worked to increase accessibility to food assistance through initiatives like the Mobile Pantry program. Through the Mobile Pantry program, refrigerated trucks deliver nutritious foods directly into neighborhoods that have few food relief options. Once the food arrives, volunteers are tasked with directing traffic, stocking tables with the food provided, and carrying the food to guests’ cars. Each mobile pantry has the capacity to distribute 8,000 pounds of food over a two-hour period, serving 500 families at a time. The food provided includes a variety of items like protein, fresh produce, baked goods, and dry or canned goods. All food is distributed free of charge to anyone who visits the mobile pantry; with no ID, papers, or pre-screening required.

Photograph of an LED sign outdoors.
Image description: A mobile LED sign sits on a patch of grass displaying a message stating “Thank you for visiting USF Feeding Tampa Bay.” Behind the sign are trees and large freight truck bearing the logo of Feeding Tampa Bay. Karen Díaz Serrano

During normal times, the mobile pantries follow a similar set up to that of a farmers’ market, encouraging guests to choose the food items they would like to take home. Although there may be limits to the number of items that each person may take, this client choice model promotes dignity and discourages food waste since individuals only take the food they know they will eat. However, during COVID-19 additional safety precautions have been implemented to protect staff and volunteers, causing changes to this model. Now, all food is pre-packaged and distributed via a drive-thru model to follow social-distancing guidelines. Cars drive through the food line and masked, gloved staff and volunteers place boxes of food into the trunk of each car.

As a result of COVID-19, nearly 1.1 million additional individuals across Tampa Bay are now food insecure. Not only do Feeding Tampa Bay’s programs need to be adjusted in order to address the higher demand for food, but they must also comply with CDC guidelines. Such adjustments led to the creation of Feeding Tampa Bay’s Mega Pantries, 22 times larger versions of mobile pantries equipped to serve over 3,500 families at a time by distributing 175,000 pounds of food. These outdoor distributions are hosted every day, rain or shine, as long as conditions are safe.

As of July 2020, the Mega Pantry program has reached nearly 10,000 families each week. Of those families, a recent survey shows that 57 percent lost their job due to COVID-19 closures and 68% have never been in a food line before. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated food insecurity and increased the need for targeted programs to vulnerable populations.

Two of the Mega Pantry locations in Hillsborough County are on college campuses, one at Hillsborough Community College (HCC) and the other at the University of South Florida (USF). In Pasco County, a Mega Pantry has recently been added to Pasco-Hernando State College (PHSC). While these pantries are open to the community at-large, they help bring hunger relief to vulnerable college students.

In recent years, food insecurity among college students has been a growing concern among institutions of higher learning in the United States (Meza et al. 2019). Struggles brought on by food insecurity causes additional hurdles to academic success and negatively influence students’ college experience. For example, not having enough to eat results in less concentration, lower immunity, and irritability, which negatively impact student participation in the classroom and ultimately, graduation rates. 

As a result of COVID-19, nearly 1.1 million additional individuals across Tampa Bay are now food insecure.

Despite the common stereotype that surviving off of Ramen noodles and frozen pizzas is part of the college experience, evidence suggests that students’ concerns about lack of food and financial resources are more dire now than in previous years. Before the pandemic, it is estimated that 30 percent of college students were food insecure (Siddiqi et al. 2020). But COVID-19 campus closures have led to restricted food services and limited access to food for students reliant on subsidized meal plans—causing them to be more vulnerable to food insecurity and its effects. Recent reports suggest that food insecurity among this population has now gone up to 44 percent of students at two-year institutions and 38 percent of students at four-year institutions (West 2020).

Anthropology has been beneficial in illuminating the issues that populations face when dealing with food insecurity, issues of limited availability and stereotypes of hunger, which COVID-19 has brought to attention. Moving forward, practicing anthropology helps play an important role in bringing more awareness and understanding of the complex issues related to food insecurity. It can also play a role in developing and implementing effective strategies to combat hunger and protect vulnerable populations, such as college students.

The efforts made by food banks are important for both the people suffering from food insecurity and the community at large; this work cannot be done without the help of dedicated partners and volunteers. Through donations of time, money, or voice, every individual can help combat hunger and the health effects that come with it.

Karen Díaz Serrano serves as the grants coordinator for Feeding Tampa Bay and is currently enrolled at the University of South Florida to obtain her PhD in Medical Anthropology. Her research interests include food security and health disparities.

Cite as: Díaz Serrano, Karen. 2020. “Addressing Food Insecurity on College Campuses.” Anthropology News website, November 19, 2020. DOI: 10.14506/AN.1545

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