When some people think of food insecurity, they might imagine a rural area that qualifies as a food desert because the only place to buy food close-by is the gas station convenience store. Or perhaps, people imagine a single mother who has to work long hours to put food on the table. Or even a small-holder farmer that has to grow their food in a drought-prone area.
What most people don’t picture when they think of food insecurity is college campuses – such as Cornell. By the USDA definition, Cornell campus is considered a food desert because there are high populations of students that don’t live within a one mile radius of a large grocery store that sells fresh produce and whole foods. In 2013, the student founders of Anabel’s Grocery, Matt Stefanko and Emma Johnston, put a question in the campus-wide PULSE survey that asked “How often have you skipped meals or not had enough to eat because of financial constraints?”
Twenty two percent of students answered ‘occasionally,’ ‘often,’ or ‘very often.’ It was clear that there needed to be an initiative to address on-campus food insecurity. But what exactly does food insecurity mean? There are different definitions, but most of them cover three key parts – accessibility, nutritional value, and reliability.
Food insecurity is often largely equated with economic accessibility. This is fair to a large extent – income is often used as an indicator to measure rates of food insecurity, as it was in the Cornell PULSE survey. However, this singular association between food insecurity and affordability is misleading because there are other aspects of food insecurity, such as physical accessibility and reliability of the food source, and the nutritional value of the food.
For Cornell students (and college students in general) without a meal plan and without a car, it can be difficult to physically get to a store that sells nutritious and affordable food. It’s expensive to regularly eat out, and the main nearby outlets to buy ingredients or whole foods are convenience stores, which lack healthy options. Getting to an off-campus grocery store can be cumbersome since it usually means blocking out at least three hours, and struggling with heavy grocery bags on a crowded bus at peak store hours.
Food insecurity isn't just about getting enough to eat – it's also about the type and quality of the food. Sustaining yourself on ramen noodles, popcorn, and frozen pizza from a convenience store isn't healthy. College students often don't have a balanced diet, and undernutrition can have negative effects on a student's physical, mental, and academic life. Finding healthy and affordable alternatives can be difficult – which is why Anabel's offers a variety of whole foods like fresh fruits and vegetables, grains, meats, and dairy products.
Reliability refers to the dependability of the food supply. Food pantries (and community fridges to a lesser extent) are common and incredibly important tools that help address hunger. However, they still depend on donations, so how much and what food they have isn’t always reliable.
Another dimension of food insecurity that’s overlooked is the social acceptability of the way a person obtains food. This social acceptability piece often refers to attaining food without stealing, scavenging, or other coping strategies, but it can also be looked at more broadly. People, and especially young, impressionable people trying to find their footing in the world (i.e. college students), often feel embarrassed for having to go to a food bank or pantry because of the negative stigma of food insecurity. This problem was another factor in why the founders of Anabel’s chose to push for a grocery store, since it would be a judgment free space that all students could use to buy their food.
It’s not just Cornell students that face food insecurity. According to a 2016 report, over 20 percent of college students experience a level of food insecurity that means a decrease in the students’ quality, variety, and quantity of food. Other recent studies suggest that nearly two in three students face food insecurity, with half of those students experiencing very low security. This can mean students have to skip class, are not able to concentrate, are unable to buy a textbook due to financial constraints, are prone to higher levels of chronic stress, or don’t academically perform as well than they would have been able to if they were food secure.
Food insecurity is still a misunderstood, stigmatized, and multifaceted issue - and it is a real problem on campus. Anabel’s Grocery wants to help break this stigma and help students understand that it is a real problem on Cornell campus. If you feel comfortable, please fill out this short survey about your experience with hunger or food insecurity.