Malnutrition, money, meal plans: Food insecurity at the University

Ralph Corbelle and Bethany Johnson

In the coming weeks, University students will adjust to virtual classes and COVID-19 precautions while focusing on their studies, extracurricular activities and career opportunities. Some of these students will skip multiple meals per day, painstakingly decide which meals to consume based on the severity of their hunger, and eagerly await an announcement of support from their university. Some students will starve this fall. 

On July 24, the student body was shocked by an email from University administration outlining new meal plan options for the upcoming fall semester. Most notably, the new minimum cost plan was double the price it had been in the past. For $1,400, students have access to seven meal swipes per week, which do not roll over to the next week when not used, and $200 dining dollars to use freely. Concerned students immediately began reaching out to each other, their professors and the administration. 

Student outcry has largely been met with, until recently, silence from University leadership. As a result of University President John Bravman’s Aug. 14 email, entitled “Information About Dining Changes,” students on campus are left wondering what support the University plans to offer vulnerable students while they grapple with the grueling realities of food insecurity in real-time. In this email, Bravman announces that the “per-meal breakfast and dinner prices have actually decreased from last year.” Students who purchase the $1,400 option are now paying $12.24 per meal, while students with the $2,750 option are paying $9.59 per meal. That is a 28% mark-up that explicitly damages students who do not have the finances to purchase the most expensive plan while rewarding students who can afford the cost of the highest option. Low-income students are directly harmed by the increased price per meal the University has devised. If the University’s goal is to “provide more meals to help protect the safety and welfare of our students,” their students’ well-being must be prioritized according to their socioeconomic status. Bravman has also clarified that he “never envisioned that seven meals per week represents sufficient nutrition” and further emphasizes that “a $700-per-semester debit account most certainly does not.” Bravman is correct in his assessment; students have been directly communicating with University administration for years about food insecurity on campus and the issues accompanying the former $700 dining dollar meal plan. The clear message through those years, however, was that $700 was a cost far too high for the amount of food it afforded students. The issue, then, is the cost of the University’s food in general and students’ inability to supplement their diets with produce from elsewhere. 

“Produce from elsewhere,” such as Giant, Weis or Walmart, is one of the reasons behind the mandatory meal plans. Bravman claims that ensuring students eat at least one meal a day on campus will “reduce the potential for virus exposure during the pandemic,” a rationale presented to the University’s faculty as one of the more pressing reasons for the plan. With the $1,400 plan providing one meal per day, students will either starve or — if their income allows — travel to local grocery stores to purchase healthier, more affordable food anyway. These off-campus travels are simply a reality for students who will not be sustained by University dining, with or without these obligatory meal plans. How, then, does an unsustainable obligatory meal plan help to reduce exposure during the pandemic? 

To conclude his email, Bravman informs students that he will be forming a task force this academic year to study food insecurity on campus and provide recommendations. While this task force will include faculty, staff and students, the emphasis here should be on vulnerable students. This email did not outline how the task force will be staffed or what sort of power it will have to make tangible changes on campus. If a task force is to be formed, students from multicultural organizations and partnerships like The Posse Foundation and the Bucknell Community College Scholars Program need to be prioritized. Transparency in the creation and capacity of this new task force is vital. In his email, Bravman refers to the Food Insecurity Group, which started in 2019, and its recommendation that the University offer only two meal plan options and eliminate the $700 dining dollars option. Bravman reveals that their ideas were “imported into our COVID-19 planning over the past six weeks.” For many students and faculty, the existence of this group was a surprise. A university-assembled group that possesses the power to impact new meal plan options should be public knowledge, and the students most impacted by food insecurity should be at the helm. The administration has yet to inform students about who comprised the Food Insecurity Group, and the announcement of an equally vague task force is doing little to ease the concern of students across campus. 

In the wake of Bravman’s email, students still do not know where they will find their next meals, which meals to skip to stretch their seven weekly swipes, or when the administration will institute deep policy changes to support their most vulnerable students. The semester began on Aug. 17. Students are weathering the consequences of food insecurity now, and their realities deserve recognition and immediate alleviation.

In addition to the absorbent cost of the $1,400 meal plan, students are beginning to struggle to navigate the inflexible dining hours of operation. While breakfast is only offered on weekdays, lunch spans from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and dinner from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Not only must students contend with one meal per day (seven per week), they must try to conform to these newly shortened hours of operation despite their class schedules, extracurricular commitments and campus jobs. To highlight the absurdity of the dinner hours, some evening classes span from 7 p.m. to 9:52 p.m., a time slot that did not cause any problems last semester when the dining facilities were open until 11 p.m. These condensed hours also have resulted in extended waiting lines since every student on campus must pick up their food within a small, rigid time frame. 

These may seem like arbitrary details, but they mean the difference between busy students eating when they need to and skipping a meal when their bodies truly need one. This is the reality of the $1,400 meal plan; students find themselves strategically planning out when they assume they’ll be the hungriest throughout the day instead of having the freedom and flexibility to eat whenever they are hungry. 

With the semester two weeks underway, students are already experiencing the consequences of food insecurity. Meals have been skipped, weight has been lost, focus has been disrupted by hunger pains. If these sound like exaggerations, understand the profound privilege of food secure students. Countless studies have been conducted across the country to confirm that food insecurity is unequivocally present on college campuses and that the hardest hit student groups are the already marginalized; Black students, students of color, first-generation students, international students and students from low socioeconomic backgrounds are going to suffer under these changes more than anyone else. These students are as much a part of the fabric of our University as the many students who may be food secure, and to dismiss their concerns and painful realities is not an option. 

These students need immediate attention and assistance, not just a research-heavy task force to better understand the problem. The problem, for now, is clear: students are starving under the financial burden and nutritional negligence of the current meal plans. The University allocates money to countless different priorities every year, whether that be Campus Activities & Programs (CAP) Center events, orientation activities, the KLARC or Bucknell Student Government (BSG) budget (which may be subsequently spent on lawn chairs for the quad). Claiming to lack the capacity to support starving students is to prioritize less important expenditures over the health and well-being of food-insecure students. 

Students need support now. The University must reach out to the most affected student populations on campus to devise clear, decisive policy changes that best serve the student body. University leadership and their students should be able to agree on at least one salient value: no student should starve on this campus. The University has the resources and capacity to make this a reality, and students, faculty, parents, alumni and administrators should expect nothing less.

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