The Sustainable Food Access core is one of eight transdisciplinary cores within the VCU Office of Inclusion, Inquiry and Innovation (iCubed). The core’s mission is to address the food desert problem through “smart city” research, which embeds advances in technology and data collection into the infrastructures of urban environments. Through interdisciplinary research, the core examines the conceptual relationship between governance, urban food, communities, technology and social innovation. Recently, core members conducted surveys and focus groups on VCU student food insecurity.
Youngmi Kim, Ph.D., associate professor in the VCU School of Social Work, is a core member whose research interests primarily focus on food insecurity from an economic perspective. She recently conducted three studies on VCU student food insecurity with an internal grant from the School of Social Work. The studies addressed the prevalence of student food insecurity, challenges associated with food insecurity and how students cope with those challenges.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as “the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods, or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.” Sustainable Food Access core member John C. Jones, Ph.D., summarizes food insecurity as a lack of access to affordable, nutritious and culturally appropriate foods.
Feeding America projected the annual food insecurity rate for 2020 at 15.6 percent. Comparatively, one of Kim’s surveys estimates that VCU students experience food insecurity at 35 percent. Kim’s findings illustrate that the college environment creates or exacerbates many challenges to food security, including limited funds, lack of transportation, lack of access to a kitchen and lack of time to prepare meals. Additionally, experiencing some level of food insecurity has long been considered a cornerstone of the college experience.
A key part of addressing student food insecurity is making people aware that it is a significant issue. Historically, the normalization of food insecurity for college students has trivialized the problem and stalled the search for solutions.
“Whenever you have limited funds, food is a very easy thing to cut out,” said Kim. “College students are young adults and they think they can compromise temporarily. But that is harmful for your health.”
“There’s very limited data about food insecurity amongst college students nationally. That body of data is still very new,” said Jones. “I think on some level, it’s just kind of assumed that [when you are in college] you’re food insecure, you’re always hustling to get food, you’re eating crappy food that you get out of the vending machine or whatever. And I think it sort of falls into this rite of passage kind of thing. But if you think about it for more than a little bit, these students are not getting the healthy, nutritious and culturally appropriate foods that they need–that’s impeding their learning ability. And so really if we want our college students to be successful both on campus and then as they transition into their professional lives off-campus, we probably should be doing more to make sure that that food insecurity is as muted as possible.”
Food insecurity has significant adverse effects on students, including psychological distress and poor academic performance. Kim’s focus groups found that some students skipped meals, skipped classes and rushed through exams because of food insecurity or hunger. Poor academic performance or dropping out of college because of food insecurity can also keep low-income students in the cycle of poverty.
There are campus and community food resources available. Notably, the Ram Pantry is a student-only food pantry established at VCU in 2014. Kim’s focus groups, however, revealed that many students were unaware of available resources. Only about half of the 21 focus group participants were aware of Ram Pantry, and only one was aware of SNAP. Many participants were unaware that VCU offers students a free public bus pass, which would aid in accessing grocery stores. Even for people who are aware of resources, there are other barriers to access, such as complicated rules, procedures and stigma.
For many, accepting food assistance can feel shameful. Ram Pantry’s location—a low-trafficked corner near the front entrance of University Student Commons—allows students to access food in relative anonymity to minimize the social stigma of accepting food assistance. However, Kim and Jones posit that this can unintentionally make accessing food resources seem like an act that should be shrouded in secrecy. Multiple students suggested a different approach: moving the Ram Pantry to a highly visible area to normalize accessing food resources.
Kim agreed that actions should be taken to create more awareness of campus food resources. She advised placing campus food resources in more centralized locations and awareness campaigns to inform students of where resources are available and how to navigate them. She also emphasized the importance of continuously monitoring the status of food insecurity and the basic needs of VCU students, especially throughout and after the pandemic.
While Kim had a prior interest in food insecurity, working with the Sustainable Food Access core has given her new perspectives and an environment for interdisciplinary collaboration.
“I’m a social worker by nature, so this is a great opportunity to get connected with engineers and other professionals. I’m actually enjoying it a lot. I’m approaching understanding food insecurity from more of an economic deprivation/poverty perspective,” said Kim. “But I also learn a lot from my colleagues in the core. They understand food insecurity from a nutrition perspective, eco-friendly/environmental perspective, so all different perspectives. That helps my understanding [of food insecurity].”
Kim hopes to expand her student food insecurity research to the national level in order to compare students in Virginia against national trends. She’s also partnering with fellow Sustainable Food Access core member John C. Jones to develop “Little Food Pantries” to install around campus. Kim hopes her work will create community engagement and “provide more innovative ways of addressing students’ food insecurity.”
The Ram Pantry accepts donations through Ram Pantry’s Amazon Wish List. Financial donations can be made at support.vcu.edu. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or visit Ram Pantry’s website for more information.