Hungry for More Than Knowledge: UVM Students Combat Food Insecurity on Campus | Education | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Hungry for More Than Knowledge: UVM Students Combat Food Insecurity on Campus

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Sarah Horrigan - COURTNEY LAMDIN
  • Courtney Lamdin
  • Sarah Horrigan

Sarah Horrigan is accustomed to eating on the cheap. One morning last week in her Buell Street apartment kitchen in Burlington, she cracked two eggs — fresh and free from her parents' North Hero farm — into a pan sizzling with green peppers and onions. As her store-brand English muffin browned in the toaster oven, Horrigan flipped the eggs to achieve the perfect over-medium fry.

It's a wonder Horrigan isn't sick of eggs, given that she ate them every day, twice a day, when she couldn't afford groceries last fall. The University of Vermont junior often skipped paying her student loans and phone bill in order to make rent and purchase meager provisions.

"People who are food insecure can hide it really well," Horrigan said, noting her peers "would have never known that I was struggling to eat every week."

Horrigan, 23, is one of thousands of American college students who experience food insecurity, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines as lacking consistent access to adequate food to lead a healthy life. A 2017 survey at UVM indicated that as many as one in four of its students is food insecure at any given time. It's a shocking statistic but perhaps should not be surprising at a university where tuition and fees recently were ranked the highest in the nation among four-year public institutions, and where not every student is affluent.

UVM students have taken several steps to help their peers, including the creation of a campus-wide food pantry that will open later this month. But other strategies to prevent student hunger, including wider use of food stamps, are limited by federal rules.

"There's not going to be an easy solution," said Nicole Reilly, a UVM Dining dietician. She also cochairs the school's food insecurity working group that was created in 2016 after a campus "lunch and learn" presented by the nonprofit Hunger Free Vermont. "If there was, we would have already solved hunger."

Some national studies estimate that half of all college students face the prospect of going hungry on occasion; students of color and those from low-income families are most likely to struggle. At UVM, first-generation college students are especially vulnerable: Nearly 40 percent identified themselves as food insecure in the spring 2017 survey, according to UVM's data.

Nutrition and food sciences assistant professor Meredith Niles, who cochairs the working group with Reilly, said the survey results came with some caveats. For one, researchers used a 10-question federal form that asked students to reflect on their access to food over the previous 12 months; the survey didn't reveal whether students were chronically hungry. It did show, however, that students were more food insecure after purchasing expensive textbooks and just before final exams.

Niles is writing two peer-reviewed papers to dig deeper into the data but said that "any rate of food insecurity among any people, especially people on our own campus, is a massive concern."

The survey did show that students who live on campus — a requirement during their first two years — typically have no trouble affording food. According to Reilly, about 85 percent of dorm dwellers opt for the meal plan that allows unlimited visits to the four UVM dining halls, where access is granted with a swipe of their college ID. But juniors and seniors who live off campus, as the vast majority do, are at such increased risk of food insecurity that Reilly nicknamed this phenomenon the "junior year effect."

Horrigan is living proof. She had a meal plan during her first two years, but when she moved off campus last June, Horrigan found that her student loan did not stretch to cover year-round rent, meals and utilities. In addition, a paperwork snafu delayed Horrigan's loan disbursement for months, forcing her to make ends meet with only the part-time wages from her 25-hour-a-week retail job.

Sarah Horrigan - COURTNEY LAMDIN
  • Courtney Lamdin
  • Sarah Horrigan

Horrigan supplemented her egg-centric diet with 50-cent boxes of pasta. Tall and already slim, she didn't need to lose weight, but she dropped 25 pounds. She was frequently so hungry that she couldn't fall asleep at night and would snooze through her alarm and miss morning classes, she said. Her grades suffered.

"People view college students, especially UVM students, as people who come from wealthier families, but the reality is, I'm paying my own way through college through loans," Horrigan said. "My family cannot afford to help me, even a dime."

Student Government Association president Jillian Scannell said that's a reality for many college students who may be too embarrassed to ask for help. A member of the food insecurity working group, Scannell is helping to open the student-run food pantry this month in the Hills Building, a centrally located academic hall behind Howe Library. Some "identity centers," such as the Mosaic Center for Students of Color, offer snacks or meals to hungry students, Scannell said. But this new food pantry will be open four days a month to anyone with a UVM student ID. It will offer nonperishable items such as pasta, cereals, nut butters, and canned fruits and vegetables free of charge.

Campus clubs, Greek organizations and athletic teams already have volunteered to staff the pantry and organize food drives to stock its shelves, Scannell said.

UVM president Suresh Garimella lauded the student leaders' efforts and said in an emailed statement that UVM takes food insecurity seriously.

"We care deeply about the well-being of members of our community, and are intensely focused on ensuring the success of our students," he wrote. "Removing obstacles that can get in the way of their success is an important component of our strategy."

The university has also introduced some obstacles. Last spring, UVM piloted Swipe Out Hunger, a national program that allows students to donate unused cafeteria guest passes to an emergency fund for students in need. But UVM requires that students get a signature from a staff or faculty member before they can use the fund. Even after taking that step, students can only use 14 swipes in an academic year, the monetary equivalent of $100. Anything more essentially amounts to financial aid and could reduce a student's award package, according to UVM spokesperson Enrique Corredera.

"UVM seeks to ensure that students have access to all the support and resources they are entitled to," he wrote in an email. "The 14-swipe strategy allows for some immediate support while they pursue local, state and federal food programs."

The swipe limit prompted critical opinion pieces in UVM's student newspaper, the Vermont Cynic. One from April 2019 called the policy a "pitiful" attempt that fails to address chronic food insecurity. The author argued that UVM should budget more to help hungry students rather than place the burden on their peers to donate meals.

"Until then, students can skip lunch, and the University can pay the new president a $630,000 salary," Kim Henry wrote.

UVM Dining's Reilly, however, said the swipe drives are successful. Students banked more than 1,200 swipes in the 2018-19 academic year, she said, noting, "We have many more meals in the bank than we are distributing."

Niles, the food insecurity researcher, said the swipe program and food pantry are meant to work in concert with other food initiatives, such as cooking classes that teach UVM students how to prepare their own meals.

"We have not tried a single strategy; we've tried dozens of strategies," Niles said, noting that the issue of food insecurity can only be addressed with state and federal resources that go "beyond what UVM is capable of achieving."

But bureaucracy can get in the way. Unless they meet stringent criteria, college students are generally barred from receiving the primary form of federal food assistance known as SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, that's administered in Vermont as 3SquaresVT.

UVM junior Sara Klimek, also a member of the food insecurity working group, recognizes that Vermont lawmakers are powerless to change federal guidelines, but she thinks the state can do something to help. Klimek started a petition drive last fall that asks legislators to boost 3SquaresVT's funding so colleges can better promote the program on campus.

Klimek was tapping into a national movement: Led by U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), members of Congress last summer introduced the College Student Hunger Act, which would reduce SNAP's 20-hour weekly work requirement for college students to 10 hours. It would also require the U.S. Department of Education to notify certain low-income students that they may be eligible for SNAP when they apply for financial aid, among other supports. In Vermont, the bill has been endorsed by Hunger Free Vermont and the Vermont Foodbank.

Klimek's effort "is all about improving access and decreasing barriers," she said. She sent the petition to Sen. Ginny Lyons (D-Chittenden) and Rep. Ann Pugh (D-South Burlington), who chair committees on health and welfare and human services, respectively. Both also teach at UVM.

Lyons agreed that the state could assist by helping students determine whether they're eligible for SNAP. A 2018 study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that 1.8 million students who qualified for SNAP weren't receiving the benefit.

Lyons has seen her own students suffer. Many work one or two jobs or are parents themselves. As a former UVM graduate student, Lyons recalled seeing her peers squirrel away the crackers meant for animals in the research barn.

"Some people might say, 'Golly, they can afford to be in college; they can afford food.' That's just not a realistic perspective today," Lyons said.

Pugh, a lecturer in UVM's Department of Social Work, agreed. UVM's rate of food insecurity among students didn't surprise her, since her curriculum focuses on poverty and even includes a writing assignment on SNAP. Her colleagues have long stocked a cabinet with fruit bars and soup for hungry students, she said.

"No Vermonter, no college student should be hungry," Pugh said. "It is not something that government alone can solve, and so we're all in this together."

At the Vermont State Colleges, only Castleton University has examined students' difficulty finding adequate nourishment, and the results weren't immediately available because the professor who oversaw the survey has since left the college.

Both Pugh and Lyons said they would meet with Klimek to learn more about food insecurity on campus.

In the meantime, Horrigan is learning to budget her meals. She clips coupons from grocery store flyers and buys canned goods and cheap proteins like beans and leafy greens. She's slowly regaining her lost weight and sees a therapist to treat the anxiety and depression that linger from the semester she didn't get enough to eat.

But Horrigan continues to worry. She's back at school with a course load of 19 credits, the most a UVM undergrad can take without special permission. With seven classes to juggle, she doesn't have time to work. For the first time since she was 18, Horrigan won't have the safety net of a part-time job.

"It's definitely going to be an interesting semester, to say the least," she said.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Hungry for More Than Knowledge | University of Vermont students combat food insecurity on campus"