Op-ed: Food security is about more than food

From preschool through higher education, schools have a responsibility to nurture both minds and bodies. Students can’t learn well when they’re not well-nourished. After all, “alma mater” translates to “nourishing mother.”

On the whole, our own nourishing mother, Tufts University, takes this responsibility seriously. But we could and should be doing more.

You may have seen postings about a survey on food security at Tufts, with a chance to win one of 20 $50 Jumbo Cash prizes. The study is being conducted by Health Services’ Department of Health Promotion and Prevention, and it aims to get a clearer sense of the extent and nature of food insecurity among undergraduates on Tufts campuses. We encourage all undergraduates to take the survey.

But along with students in our spring “Practicing in Food Systems” class, ENV190, we’re also calling on students, staff and administrators to recognize why this problem can’t be solved simply by providing more food.

Current efforts include financial aid that may include a meal plan. Students can also get support from various programs including the FIRST Resource Center, which works with low-income and first-generation students and those with undocumented status.

Most Tufts undergrads are familiar with the Swipe It Forward program, initiated in 2017 by Tufts Community Union (TCU) Senate leaders in partnership with Tufts Dining and the Office of Student Success and Advising (OSSA), which has now been integrated into the FIRST Resource Center. According to Patti Klos, director of dining and business services, Swipe It Forward provided 1,672 meals in the 2018–19 academic year. The program is clearly continuing to grow. This year Dining donated 2,000 swipes each semester, and students can donate additional swipes — up to two for those on the Premium Plan and up to four for those on block plans.

Coordination and publicity around these resources could be stronger, but we assume that will continue to evolve along with the efforts themselves.

But there’s another layer to this issue that elite schools like Tufts are only beginning to come to grips with.

The standard definition of food insecurity — “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways,” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture — doesn’t begin to get at the many reasons why a person might experience food insecurity.

In a university setting, this can manifest in many subtle ways. Reliable access to good food tends to wax and wane over the academic year and over the course of a student’s time at school. Juniors and seniors living off-campus in a high-priced housing market often find themselves juggling basic expenses once rent and utilities get added to tuition and books. Even for first-years and sophomores on meal plans, there are times, such as breaks, when the dining halls are closed. There’s some help available to cover those gaps, but it doesn’t necessarily reach or cover every student who might be experiencing food insecurity.

Even more subtle are the ways that social interactions around food can sharpen disparities. You often hear the phrase “food brings people together.” But food can also be divisive — for example, when a group of friends decides to go out to eat together, but students of more limited means can’t afford to say yes. Students may also opt to prioritize expenses other than food for family reasons — for example, turning a meal plan refund into rent to fill a gap during a moment of family financial crisis.

That’s a choice, but it is a choice many Tufts students never have to make. It can be alienating to face those choices when you’re at a generally very affluent institution. It’s why sociologist Anthony Abraham Jack argues in his 2019 book “The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges are Failing Disadvantaged Students” that “access is not inclusion.” Admission to a school like Tufts, even with a generous aid package, doesn’t address the many ways that disparities can make themselves felt in daily campus living.

This is where food insecurity is about a lot more than just food. Gathering more data about the issue on our own campus is an important first step toward a more productive discussion about it. Our class will be helping to analyze and share the survey data with the Tufts community through various media later in the spring.

But we’re also calling on students, staff and administrators to engage in deeper conversations around the issue. Tufts should adopt a policy that no student should ever have to sacrifice eating well in order to meet other needs. There should be stronger coordination and communication around existing resources on campus. In the future, it would help to have a designated point person and a unified program addressing food options. In the short term, updating and connecting the available online information would be a huge step.

We know that our nourishing mother faces a lot of demands for time and resources — but keeping everyone fed is surely at the top of the list.