After a full semester in its new location in Lerner Hall, The Food Bank at Columbia has released comprehensive data highlighting the extent of food insecurity among undergraduates that creators of the organization hope will compel councils to commit more funding.
The General Studies Student Council, which supported the creation of The Food Bank in 2016, has given $6000 to the organization to date. Other councils have withheld comparable funding, citing the fact that General Studies students show disproportionate levels of food insecurity. Columbia College Student Council has given $162, Engineering Student Council has given $108, and Barnard’s Student Governing Association has given $216 through funding from the Joint Council Co-Sponsorship Committee, which was created in 2010 to fund campus-wide initiatives.
But for The Food Bank, which has lobbied all four councils for funding, new data on food bank usage from the past semester serves as their strongest argument yet for garnering more support. While General Studies students still make up the bulk of food bank users, the data is proof of demand for the food bank across undergraduate schools that was previously unknown.
Two hundred sixty-six undergraduate students used the food bank in the fall 2017 semester, accounting for 66 percent of all students served. Additionally, undergraduates have received 492 of the 728 food disbursements the food bank has distributed since its inception in May 2016.
The Food Bank documented that 106 School of Engineering and Applied Science students used the food bank last semester. However, it did not begin distinguishing between graduate and undergraduate SEAS students until halfway through the semester, meaning the exact number of undergraduate engineering student users is lower than recorded. Twenty-seven Columbia College students, 24 Barnard College students, and 109 General Studies students also used the food bank in the past semester.
The data helps concretize the scope of food insecurity on campus, and The Food Bank’s co-founders, Michael Higgins, GS ’21, and Ramond Curtis, GS ’18, hope these numbers will help promote support for The Food Bank from Columbia’s administration and student organizations.
“We have enough information now to say, look, this is an established organization that is being used by your student body,” Curtis said.
The Columbia College Student Council and Engineering Student Council, however, have approached the data and the food bank with more caution, calling for more time and research before further action is taken.
“We’ve just seen one semester of food bank disbursements,” Nathan Rosin, CC ’18 and president of CCSC, said. “We want to evaluate on the whole for the year. … Once we have a fuller picture, from a more institutionalized program, if there are more actionable steps to consider after that, we’ll absolutely consider them.”
Aida Lu, SEAS ’19 and president of ESC, also expressed hesitation about the initial findings, despite ESC’s contribution to The Food Bank through JCCC.
“We want to work with a clear set of data,” Lu said. “It’s also important, once we implement some kind of change, to let that change run its course. … In order to better understand [food insecurity], you have to talk to the people who are using the food bank or feel food-insecure.”
But for students who face food insecurity, the food bank has provided a much-needed solution.
“I was really struggling. I remember how terrible that was. It was a real time when I lost weight and … had to choose to eat just once a day,” a food bank user from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences who asked to remain anonymous said. “I had so much gratitude [to The Food Bank] that no other student would have to endure what I endured. There was no stigma. It was just so normalized.”
While The Food Bank’s data is indicative of the larger problem, it likely only accounts for a portion of food-insecure students. The reason, according to Curtis and Higgins, is the stigma that surrounds food insecurity, which deters students in need from using the resources available.
“It’s important to have a system set up so that, if students want to utilize a resource, they don’t have barriers of social stigma,” Curtis said. “We’re getting more people to talk about it, making it a topic that students aren’t embarrassed to discuss. ... We’re changing that narrative.”
Though the data collected is a step forward, The Food Bank will need increased funding and support from the Columbia community to continue to expand.
“As much as I would love to say we are cash solvent, we’re not. We are brand new,” Higgins said. “The crux of our arguments for every single school is going to be that there are students within your school that need the food bank, regardless of whether it’s one student or 100 students. They need the food bank. What can we do as a collaborative effort to make sure that The Food Bank is an initiative that stays?”