Editorial: Fighting food insecurity on campus

Food insecurity, or the lack of access to healthy, affordable food, is increasingly impacting college students across the United States as the cost of tuition goes up. Students are often forced to choose between buying books and school supplies and paying for meals. This very basic struggle to eat harms students’ educations by causing them to miss or drop classes, and even to fail to graduate altogether. According to a December 2017 study, half of all college students have been affected by food insecurity, even at private universities. Tufts has taken some excellent first steps toward improving food security on campus through initiatives such as Swipe it Forward, along with the availability of free leftover grocery store food on weekends in the Campus Center. The Office for Student Success and Advising (OSSA) also offers free lunch or coffee meetings with staff members at campus dining facilities and provides meal tickets to students who might be too busy to meet. While these are helpful programs, Tufts should publicize them more effectively to ensure that as many students as possible benefit from them.

Most notably, Swipe it Forward, which allows students to donate meal swipes to be used by other students in need of meals, has been a great success so far. The collaboration on this initiative between Tufts Dining, Tufts Community Union (TCU) Senate and OSSA is an indication of the joint effort to end food insecurity by students and Tufts as an institution. However, this is still only a small part of the solution, as students can only access up to 10 meals per semester, and the meal donation window closes about halfway through the semester. This prevents students from donating extra meals that they might only realize they do not need later in the semester. Students on the premium meal plan can only donate one regular meal and one guest meal, and students on smaller meal plans can only donate up to four meals. As a result, leftover meals that students can no longer donate are wasted at the end of the semester, instead of being used to help students in need. The available meal plans for undergraduates are expensive and students may find themselves forgoing a meal plan in order to pay for their tuition and school supplies. Moreover, research highlighted in a recent New York Times op-ed shows that even while on a meal plan, many students still experience food insecurity that affects their abilities to succeed academically. 

These efforts demonstrate Tufts’ commitment to fighting food insecurity among students, but there is still a long way to go. One critical step Tufts must take in order to ensure food security on campus is to advocate at a policy level for the expansion of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, previously known as food stamps, for college students. Currently, it is difficult for students to qualify for SNAP benefits unless they meet a host of requirements, including working 20 hours a week on top of their studies. Having to work to satisfy SNAP requirements, study and still find a way to eat healthily on a regular basis is an extraordinarily difficult undertaking.  

At a small number of American universities, including Oregon State University, students can use SNAP benefits to buy food at campus grocery stores. Although accepting SNAP benefits in campus dining facilities comes with some significant logistical and technological obstacles, there are smaller steps Tufts can take while this process plays out at the policy level. These include creating campus food pantries and calling for policymakers to make it easier for students to use SNAP benefits at local food facilities.

Promoting food security on campus will increase inclusivity, and contribute to Tufts’ goal of becoming more accessible to students of all backgrounds. As the cost of attending university continues to increase, Tufts must provide students with the basic foundations they need to take full advantage of their educations.