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Food Insecurity at UW

Written by Shu Lan Schaut (The Dairy Cardinal)
Cans of jellied cranberry sauce are pictured as volunteers with The Open Seat UW Student Food Pantry unload and sort nearly $500 in groceries at the Student Activity Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on Nov. 21, 2020. (Photo by Jeff Miller / UW-Madison)

The cost of living is increasing. Housing prices are soaring. Tuition has been raised. As living and academic expenditures rise, students are struggling to meet basic needs — including accessing food.

Nearly a quarter of undergraduate college students in the U.S. were considered food insecure in 2020, according to federal data gathered as part of the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study.

Additionally, an estimated 12% of University of Wisconsin-Madison students are food insecure, according to The Open Seat, a student-run campus food bank.

Food insecurity and its effects

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) defines food insecurity as the “lack [of] regular access to enough safe and nutritious food for normal growth and development and an active and healthy life.”

Food insecurity is a separate concern from hunger, which the FAO considers as the “uncomfortable or painful physical sensation caused by insufficient consumption of dietary energy.” The FAO clarifies that hunger and food insecurity are interrelated but not the same.

The lack of access to nutritious food negatively impacts students in multiple ways, often affecting their physical and mental health as well as their academic success, according to a 2022 report from Health Affairs, a health policy research journal.

The report found students with insufficient food access reported feeling indicators of stress and depression at higher rates than their food-secure peers and are more likely to fall into lower GPA categories.

Food insecure college students have been linked to lower graduation rates, according to a study from Johns Hopkins University.

“Lack of access to nutritious food is a serious problem,” said Bradley Bolling, an associate professor of food science at UW-Madison. “It can impact mental health, ability to focus and succeed in classes. Long term, it can also increase the rise of chronic diseases.”

Obstacles for students

The closest grocery stores to campus are Fresh Market, Trader Joe’s and Capitol Center Market.

But that isn’t enough for many students.

“I don’t like buying food anywhere near campus like Trader Joe’s or Fresh because it’s pretty unaffordable,” said Chloe Shomo, a sophomore and Associated Students of Madison (ASM) intern who is working on a project about food access.

Shomo said having a car on campus this year gave her a significant boost toward accessing cheaper grocery stores away from campus.

“[Last year] I used to wait until I could get to Woodman’s and stock up,” she said.

Cost is also an issue for some students eating on campus.

“I think that UW dining halls are unaffordable for most students. The only reason I could afford them [last year] was my scholarship plan,” Shomo said.

Out of the dining plans available to students currently, the Go10 option is the cheapest at $1,925 a semester. The Go10 provides students with 10 meal swipes per week, which covers under 50% of the typical three meals a day diet. 

Next year, the cost of all dining plans will increase. Go10 is estimated to increase to $2,000 per semester. 

“There’s not a lot of affordable food options on campus in general,” said Christina Treacy, a senior and one of the co-presidents of the Food Recovery Network, a student organization focused on limiting food waste and alleviating food insecurity.

The unions on campus share a similar problem. Although the Wisconsin Union-owned restaurants include many dining options, they can be expensive to eat at. The majority of menu entree options average around or above $9 a meal. The average cost of a sandwich and a side at The Sett in Union South is $9.50.

Treacy also said time was a constraint limiting regular access to adequate meals. 

“When I leave my house in the morning, I leave for the entire day. I have access to refrigerators and microwaves, so I pack lunch and dinner. But a lot of students don’t,” Treacy said. “Not having time to properly prepare food is a barrier to [food] security.”

Both Treacy and Shomo cited other expenses — such as tuition and housing — as stressors of food insecurity.

The UW Board of Regents voted last spring to increase tuition costs at UW schools for the first time in more than a decade, with an estimated $21.5 million increase in revenue. According to Apartment List, rent in Madison has increased by 5.8% in the past 12 months.

“[Because of] the rising cost of tuition and housing, I think for myself and many other students, you can skip a meal, if it means you can have a roof over your head,” Shomo shared. “It’s the bargaining that you do every day in life.”

Increasing food access, keeping up with demand

In an effort to support food insecure students, multiple organizations say they do what they can to make food accessible. 

The Open Seat is a food pantry available to any self-identified food insecure students at UW-Madison. Open three days a week, it functions primarily out of the Student Activity Center and has an additional distribution day once a week in Eagle Heights. 

The pantry has items ranging from canned goods to hygienic products. The only requirement asked of students is to sign in when they arrive. Students can bring home any items they want, unrestricted. 

Demand for resources has increased over time. The Open Seat served over an estimated 8,000 individual pantry visits in 2023 — though the number is likely greater, according to The Open Seat’s graduate student advisor Amelia Weidemann.

In contrast to January 2023, the Open Seat had 350 more visits to the pantry this past January, Weidemann said. 

The Keep Food Pantry, located inside Lutheran Memorial Church, has also seen an increase in demand.

Open nearly every Thursday of the year, with one week off for Thanksgiving, Keep Food welcomes students, staff and faculty members from Madison College, Edgewood College and UW-Madison to shop their shelves for free. Visitors must have their university ID with them and are asked to register online before arriving. 

Located in the same basement, Keep Food has shelves and fridges filled with both fresh and shelf stable food to choose from. There, Keep Food lends space to The Badger Caring Closet, a registered student organization that provides basic supplies to students in need.

“As I look back [over] the last four years, the numbers doubled in size,” said Barb Ludeke, Keep Food Pantry coordinator. “Four years ago, if we saw 1,000 [visits], that would be significant. We [have] about 7,000-8,000 visits a year now.”

On average, 180 to 200 shoppers frequent the Keep Food Pantry over the course of three hours each week, said Luedke.

In addition to food pantries, multiple student groups center their mission around food access and student hunger.

Slow Food UW is a student nonprofit that functions out of the lower level of The Crossing, the same space where the Food Recovery Network and a freezer used by UW Frozen Meals. All three are student-led organizations independent of each other, but all work toward the same goal: helping students eat.

Both the Food Recovery Network and UW Frozen Meals focus on recovering unserved meals from university dining halls as a way to limit food waste while simultaneously providing free meals to students. 

UW Frozen Meals repackages and freezes these meals, distributing them to partnered fridges around campus where students may pick them up for free, and the Food Recovery Network offers free hot meals for students. They are the only organization near campus that consistently offers a free hot meal, according to Treacy. 

Meanwhile, Slow Food serves locally grown food at affordable rates to the greater Madison community twice a week. Prices for a meal of an entreé and two sides range from $6 to $9.

Between the Food Recovery Network and Slow Food, upward of 300 individuals are served each week.

“[These resources] are here for the students, by the students, because we all understand how difficult it is to be in college” Celeste Kim, the co-executive director of Slow Food UW and a senior at UW. “We want you to come to our space, we want you to take this food, we want you to be well nourished.”

Is it enough?

Kim, Shomo and Treacy all said they hope to destigmatize food insecurity for college students.

“No one wants to show they’re going through a hard time,” Kim said. “I don’t think utilizing these resources or getting food for free is anything to be ashamed of. It’s hard enough to be a college student, it’s hard enough to go to class, pay for rent [and] pay loans.”

“People are always joking about ‘Oh yeah, all I ate today was like a granola bar for lunch,’” Treacy said. “I think a lot of students may have challenges in reconciling with the fact that they are experiencing food insecurity.”

The lack of awareness of resources is another barrier to food security, said Treacy. 

Although many campus food access organizations advertise through social media accounts and websites, Luedke and Weidemann said many students only learn about their respective organizations through word of mouth. 

More institutional support from the university is needed overall, according to Kim.

“I think that UW could do a better job with allowing these organizations that are here to help students advertise their services more,” Kim said.

Shomo and Treacy echoed Kim’s sentiments but highlighted a need for professional staff, a central principle of an upcoming ASM Sustainability campaign

“Right now on campus, there is no full-time administrative position that just handles food insecurity on campus,” Shomo said. “The most educated people on this campus about food resources are students, and you just have to be lucky enough to find this information.”

According to Treacy, multiple programs and organizations on campus are becoming overwhelmed with the rise in demand, such as the Badger FARE program.

“We’ve been reaching beyond capacity,” Treacy said of the Food Recovery Network. “I don’t think it’s possible to continue to sustain all of these student organizations without that institutional support.”

ASM plans to release a food access survey to the student body in the coming weeks to gather data and in support of their campaign for a professional staff member focused on food insecurity, according to Treacy. 

Their goal is to have the position created by the end of the academic year.

“It’s the university’s job to provide for the basic needs of their students, one of which is food access,” Treacy said. “Students can’t be students when they have to focus on sustaining themselves.”