‘Unconscionable’: Biology department elucidates our food insecurity problem

Nick DeMarchis, Senior Writer

The uproar over the University’s change in meal plans needs no introduction: 5,000+ signature petitions, countless photos of paltry sandwiches and rotten lettuce, and official comment from Pennsylvania’s Attorney General have marked the University experience these past few weeks, turning the now-infamous alterations into a memorable debacle.

Yet stories of students’ experiences with food insecurity (which is inexorably related to the meal plans) often get swept under the rug for the same reasons that many other student issues do – because they are decentralized, and a thick fog of stigma hangs about the issue. The account @bucknellexplain on Instagram has certainly taken efforts to publicize such problems, and their work is a great force among students to fight this issue; the University’s record of listening to complaints voiced on Instagram pages is, however, admittedly limited. If only there were someone to lend legitimacy to the issue.

Enter the University’s biology department. As some professors in the department heard from their advisees and students about the new meal plan and menu changes on campus, they decided to collect their own data. The department released an anonymous survey where students were asked whether they were getting enough food, whether the food is available when they need it and had space to add their own additional comments. 

A Sept. 1 email from the biology department chair Ken Field to University President John Bravman and Provost Elisabeth Mermann-Jozwiak, to which all University faculty was CC’d, noted that the survey returned sobering results. As the email claims, “Food insecurity concerns [on campus] are much more serious than are addressed by the minor changes listed on the website that you referenced … Many of our students are going hungry.”

I had the opportunity to speak with Associate Professor of Biology Mark Spiro before those results were emailed out. He said, “It’s a biology department-wide effort. There’s no single person involved, there’s no leader, this is a very amorphous kind of collaborative process.” Spiro noted that faculty “come to Bucknell because you know that the professors care about the students,” and that “when these issues [of food insecurity] came up, I couldn’t believe the responses.”

The report states “Nearly all of respondents — 95.4% — reported that the nutritional quality of the food is unacceptable… [m]ore than half of the respondents indicated that they have dietary restrictions, and of those, 57% are having difficulty finding anything they can eat through Bucknell Dining.”

“The most important thing I heard the students saying was, ‘We expected lines to be longer, selection to be less,’” Spiro said.  However, to his dismay, “What they didn’t expect was to not be able to have their nutritional needs met.” The report adds that “Only 38.2% of respondents are able to get enough food.” Almost 20% of students reported that Dining staff members were “outright refusing” to serve larger portions.

Resident District Manager of Bucknell Dining and Parkhurst Carlos Soza stated he was unable to comment in time for publication.

Food insecurity here at the University is not a new problem — COVID-19 has merely done an excellent job of exacerbating the problems that the University has had for years. Multiple students have done effective research into food insecurity, one of note being Spandan Marasini  ’21 creating a podcast (Dissected) to discuss the issue. Marasini’s inquiries, conducted before the pandemic and meal plan changes, echo even more sharply in the time of COVID-19.

Spiro noted seriously of the class disparities in the impact of meal plan changes. “Students who are in a more precarious economic situation, are going to be suffering the brunt of this, that economic inequality also disproportionately affects students of color, and that is absolutely an issue that we all need to become more aware of,” he said.

And yet, our university has either failed to see or chose to ignore the true depth of food insecurity, and the unfortunately vast number of students that it affects.

On Thursday, Aug. 27, the University updated its Dining FAQ page with some policy changes. While two items seemed like steps in the right direction (longer hours and “more chicken”), many of the other points sounded like parents’ responses to a whining child. For instance, “My burger bun is squashed” or “I want pasta dishes without the sauce” serve only to take away from the legitimacy of this very real problem. I hope that the tone of that FAQ page comes from a place of ignorance of the depth of the problem, as opposed to passivity or indifference or, worse, intentional misrepresentation.

This report should serve as a wake-up call to our University’s administration and should leave no room for continued ignorance. While noting the myriad challenges that Dining Services’ leaders must confront in a pandemic, and the near-certain personal hardship that Dining staff faces, full transparency in the approach to these issues would lend much to all University members’ peace of mind. As the report notes, “[i]f the University cannot provide these students [with dietary restrictions] with the food they can safely eat, it is unconscionable to be charging them money for the privilege of not eating anything.”

All students and faculty have ever wanted on this issue is transparency and receptivity. Transparency as to the reason and details of the changes, transparency about the Parkhurst contract, receptivity to students’ genuine concerns, and receptivity to the faculty’s comments.

I love this university, and I support our Dining staff. But students have to eat. I applaud the biology department for shedding light on this issue, so that, hopefully, the administration can work with Parkhurst to ensure that students can get the nutrition they need to be productive students and healthy individuals.

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