After a school–sponsored dinner last year, Lillian* was struck by a thought: “Wow, I don’t know when I’m going to eat again. Hopefully soon.”
Now a junior in the College, Lillian remembers growing increasingly worried about where her next meal would come from. Living on–campus as a sophomore provided unforeseen challenges—due to a mice and roach infestation, her kitchen was essentially useless. Without a meal plan for the first time, Lillian was at a loss. “I basically just lived off of dinner discussions and evented free food,” Lillian explains. “Which is obviously really hard.”
Food insecurity, or the state of being without a reliable food source, plagues 22 percent of Philadelphia residents every year. However, the struggles of food–insecure students within the subset of the Penn community are not widely known about or discussed.
According to a report done by Feeding America, a nationwide chain of food banks, more than 10 percent of its 46.5 million adult clients are college students. Activism on campus in regards to food insecurity has emerged over the last few years; this fall, PennDesign students built a huge, luminescent flower on Locust Walk in an attempt to bring attention to food insecurity. Last April, Free Food at Penn worked to collect leftover food from different events and offer it to students. Earlier this month seven students planned to lobby Student Financial Services (SFS) over “inadequate financial aid [plans]” according to the Daily Pennsylvanian, with one student, Danielle*, describing how she ate one meal a day to save money and lost 25 pounds in just months.
Although the conversation about food insecurity has made strides, there is little widespread discussion of its prevalence among Penn students. While the administration has made several efforts to address it, often shame keeps students from speaking out and seeking help.
What Food Insecurity Means at Penn
Food insecurity largely starts sophomore year, given that freshmen are required to buy a $5,086 meal plan. Financial aid covers this for some students, many of whom choose after freshman year to opt out of the meal plan in exchange for a monetary refund from Student Financial Services. They find they can make the money go further on their own, saving the extra to buy textbooks or send home to their families. Many of those on the meal plan resent the price, knowing that they would never regularly spend that much on groceries; however, being on a meal plan ensures a steady supply of food. Although most go off the meal plan to save costs, many still struggle to afford food, especially if their financial package shrinks after freshman year. With a reduced or completely eliminated meal plan, food–insecure students may find themselves entering sophomore year with no guarantee of three meals a day—let alone one.
“Penn’s cost increased. So even not taking out a meal plan I still had an amount I had to pay out of pocket, and to pay for that I just couldn’t afford to buy food,” Lillian remembers. “This year, you know, I can get a pound of pasta for seventy–five cents. So it’s not the healthiest, but it’s food.”
College senior Wayne Schmitt also takes issue with the high cost of the dining plan. “I feel that the quality of the food isn’t worth the price a lot of the time,” he says. “The dining halls are convenient but I don’t want to pay for the convenience. It’s too expensive to pay for that.”
Heather Finnegan, a freshman in the College, is on a meal plan that limits her to one meal swipe a day. “So what ends up happening is I gorge myself once a day,” Heather remarked, “and then not eating for the rest of the day.”
Although dining dollars are included on Heather’s plan, she notes that they’re largely ineffective in purchasing consistent meals. The items students can purchase with dining dollars in places like Houston Hall or Frontera are expensive, and it’s easy to run through dining dollars quickly. And even though the meal plan guarantees a next meal, she finds herself constantly calculating how much credit she has left when she checks out, something she never sees other students doing.
Grocery shopping poses another challenge for Heather. Growing up in upstate South Carolina, her family bought most of their food at a smaller, discounted store where most of the food sold was past its shelf life. Groceries in University City, on the other hand, are sold at a steeper rate.
Students often struggle to pay for meals during the time when they are expecting a refund check from SFS—a process often delayed by unexpected paperwork. Isaac Silber, the Program Coordinator for the newly created First–Generation Low–Income (FGLI) Center, noted that, “In those windows, it’s especially hard to make sure that you have enough for food.”
Repercussions on Campus
The stress of not knowing where their next meal is coming from can be both mentally and physically taxing on students. Lillian had difficulty reconciling her student status with the pressing need to supply herself with food. ”I work two jobs...And I’m still a full–time student. You don’t perform as well when you’re not nourished. It’s just a fact,” Lillian said. “So it’s hard sometimes when people are dismissive of that struggle.”
Danielle found that when she stopped eating regularly she faced intense migraines and frequent illness that made it difficult to study. Isaac noted that food–insecurity complicates the college experience for many students.
“Being hungry definitely affects your focus and things like that. It definitely affects your stress level,” he said. “On top of that having to make sure you’re budgeting for food...that definitely adds a lot.”
Lillian explained that friends or classmates will often comment on her grades, without recognizing the difficulties of being a food–insecure student. “People in general are just like, oh you should’ve studied more, this class was so easy, why didn’t you do this, go to this review session. And it’s like, I don’t have as much free time. If I have to choose between eating and studying...I don’t know. It’s a tough call.”
On top of the academic repercussions, students also find that when social life revolves around grabbing lunch and BYOs, not having money for food can feel isolating. “It limits the social circles that you can be in with ease at Penn,” Isaac said.
Heather agreed. “There’s a ‘going out to eat’ culture and a BYO culture and an ordering in culture. That’s frustrating because you always have to put yourself out of that and find different ways to find bonds. Because those are social things, and you have to find different social situations that don’t cost anything.”
Lillian too faces exclusion based on her food security status. “I just can’t do things. That’s more of a general financial issue. But it can be kind of awkward, because a big thing is people going, ‘Oh, let’s grab dinner, let’s grab lunch’, and it’s like well, I still want to hang out with you, but not like that.”
Lyndsi Burcham, a College sophomore and Secretary of Penn First, a group for first–generation college students at Penn, found that this social inhibitor can prevent low–income students from expanding their social circle.
“That’s the primary way for a lot of students to make close relationships,” Lyndsi said. “So it just leaves us in this spot where we’re just kind of secluded into our own community because we do what we can afford and only that.”
Still, Lillian feels uncomfortable disclosing her food insecurity. “I just didn’t really talk about it. I would make up excuses if someone wanted to get lunch, say I already ate or something. It’s very uncomfortable.” Restaurants like Chipotle, Sweetgreen and Honeygrow can set a student back anywhere from ten to fifteen dollars—a steep price for some. “There’s a lot of very privileged people, and it’s very casual to spend $20 on a meal. And that’s more I spend on groceries in a month.”
When she has confided in people she finds she is often met with pity. “I don’t like people feeling sorry for me. And that’s the response I get from people when I tell them,” Lillian recounted. “Like, aw poor you, that sucks. And yeah, it does suck, but I’m still an adult. I deal with it.”
Lyndsi also finds that pity is a common response from her peers. And while she is open about her low–income status, she understands students like Lillian who aren’t.
“The thing is there’s not really anything they can do. It puts you in this awkward position of if they offer to buy you food, I don’t want you to feel sorry for me,” she said. “I’m very open about my identity as an FGLI student and I’m not ashamed of it, but I know plenty of students on this campus who identify as low–income and they try to hide it as much as they can.”
Wayne also feels uncomfortable declining invitations to BYOs. And although he recalls one friend who confided he skipped meals to save money, he has found students generally reluctant to admit facing similar struggles. “I don’t think it’s something that’s very often talked about,” he said.
This lack of awareness among the larger Penn population can be frustrating, especially when students waiting on bank deposits from their parents complain of being ‘broke’ in front of students sending money home to theirs.
“I don’t think people think about the implications of that when they say it because for me when I hear someone saying 'Oh yeah, I’m just a typical broke college student,' I’m like, you don’t actually get what that means,” Lyndsi said. “It’s just kind of frustrating because your definition of broke isn’t broke.”
Still, Lyndsi finds that comments like these come from ignorance rather than callousness.
“I don’t think people think about it at all,” Lyndsi added. “People can’t imagine that someone isn’t eating.”
Combating Food Insecurity
There are resources on campus to address food insecurity, including administrative efforts and government assistance. But because these students’ struggles are so rarely talked about, many aren’t aware that such help exists.
Many students find relief by applying for food stamps under the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Plan (SNAP), although not all are aware that they could qualify for them. There are inhibiting requirements as well—recipients must work at least 20 hours per week to be eligible.
Wayne, Lillian and Danielle all rely on food stamps, which Danielle says helped her “completely.” Lillian said the SNAP benefits turned her life around, and only wished she had known about them sooner.
Wayne took initiative to fill a gap that he saw on campus by starting the Free Food at Penn group on Facebook to help students who might be food insecure. Through the group, where clubs and organizations can publicize events offering free food, Wayne has found he can go several days without paying for meals. But he admits that he sacrifices nutrition by eating foods like pizza and doughnuts that these events offer. And Lyndsi noted that many low–income students balance schoolwork with one or more jobs, making it hard to squeeze extra events into their schedule.
Just last month Penn opened the FGLI Center, housed in the Greenfield Intercultural Center. The new center includes a food pantry where food–insecure students can access household staples at any time.
College seniors Jessie Abrams and Liza Lansing founded the group Swipe Out Hunger, which allowed students to donate the monetary value of their meal swipes to the food bank Philabundance. But last semester the administration approached them with the idea to facilitate the donation of meal swipes to food–insecure students on campus instead. The program was made available only to students whom SFS identified as high need. Last semester, they donated 450 meals to 57 students staying on campus over Thanksgiving break, and 600 meals to 23 students over winter break. The group now includes an education component as well.
“I was definitely ignorant to the fact that there’s a huge food–insecure population on college campuses,” Liza said. “I don’t think people know that it’s an issue on this campus, let alone any college campus.”
Isaac hopes to see more efforts going forward to address food insecurity, like more food pantries and donation drives.
“Access to sufficient food options for all of our students is a priority for Student Financial Services,” SFS Director of Communications Karen Hamilton said. “SFS is working to streamline the process for when students exercise their option to remove dining plans from their packages.”
Isaac sees his new position as a point person that can direct students to the resources they need. “There are a lot of resources available,” Isaac said. “They’re just really scattered and hard to find.” For example, Danielle was able to secure meal vouchers from organizations on campus like Student Intervention Services, PennCAP and La Casa Latina when she was struggling freshman year. Isaac also hopes that the new center will help foster community among students facing similar struggles.
“It’s very isolating, because so many people at Penn are very privileged and have access to a lot of things, so you can feel like you’re the only person. But every so often you’ll run into someone in a similar situation that’s like, you never would’ve known,” said Lillian. “It’s a lot easier when you know that people are going through the same thing.”