The Food Bank at Columbia, a student-run organization devoted to providing food for students who suffer from food insecurity, has moved into a new space in Lerner Hall that it secured before the start of this semester.
The Food Bank—jump-started last fall by a $1,000 allocation from General Studies Student Council—is the latest of many efforts to address food insecurity at Columbia. Recognized as a student group by the Student Governing Board in April, is no longer affiliated with GSSC, and serves students from every school. Two other measures introduced in the past two years are the Emergency Meal Fund, which allows up to six dining hall meals per term for food insecure students, and the now-defunct meal-sharing app Swipes, a platform for students to donate meal swipes to each other. Both those initiatives have been criticized as insufficient, especially for students who do not use dining plans.
Students in the School of General Studies have historically suffered more from food insecurity than students of the University’s other undergraduate schools. In the 2015-2016 school year, General Studies students requested more than half of all EMF meals, while only comprising a fourth of the undergraduate student body. Now, beyond its initial funding from GSSC and a $6,000 allocation from the Student Governing Board last semester, the food bank subsists on donations—most recently, a $1,000 grant from Columbia Community Service in August.
Having recently expanded into a new, permanent space on the fifth floor of Lerner Hall, food bank co-founders Michael Higgins, GS ’21, and Ramond Curtis, GS ’19, see a critical opportunity for growth. The new location was offered to the food bank back in December 2016 by Campus Services, and was made possible by the Student Mail Center’s move to Wien Hall this summer—before that, the bank operated out of the General Studies lounge in Lewisohn Hall.
“What we found out was that they were offering a space. We didn’t have to ask. The University already knew that we wanted a space, and they knew that our first choice was Lerner,” Higgins said. “The space itself has already improved our ability to serve the student body tremendously, and as we grow, it’s only going to improve our opportunities exponentially.”
The new location in Lerner, along with the University-wide email sent out by the food bank late last month, has resulted in an increase in donations and volunteer applications.
“At this point now, once we sent out the email to the entire student body ... we increased dispersants by, like, 400 percent,” Curtis, a General Studies senator, said. “And that’ll fall back again, but we’re going to continue the promotion.”
The food bank wants to provide “20 to 30” servings per week, according to Curtis, and aims to reach as many food-insecure students as possible. Starting next Wednesday, food insecure students can walk into the food bank’s open hours from 4 to 6 p.m. and receive food anonymously.
Through a new points system, students can pick and choose individual food items à la carte, “so it’s very customizable,” Higgins said, with points allotted “based on the number of individuals that are dependent upon them for food.”
While Higgins and Curtis are hopeful about the food bank’s future, obstacles remain. As a student group, the need for funding is constant. Along with donations and student fees, partnerships with organizations within and outside Columbia go a long way in keeping the food bank viable, but such relationships take time to develop.
“Granted, there is a lot of buzz about the food bank right now,” Higgins said. “But we still have a long way to go, and the more people that we reach out to, the more people know we exist, the more likely it is that an individual will reach out to us.”
While the food bank must fight for viability, it also plans to grow. Curtis envisions it as a future “one-stop shop” for all the needs of the financially insecure student population of Columbia, including textbooks and family goods.
“The Food Bank at Columbia is going to serve as the flagship store, the flagship location for food insecurities and additionally financial insecurities,” Curtis said. “We can become this center point. … We can help distribute information for financial resources from [the First-Generation Low-Income Partnership], from the University, from all different angles, we can become this point of gravity for those resources and those opportunities.”
But while he said the recent move to a more centrally located space has strengthened the food bank, Higgins sees the issue of food insecurity as complex and unabating.
“This is Columbia. We can’t assume that there won’t be students without food insecurities,” Curtis said. “But what we can assume is that there is ample resources, and if it’s properly organized and structured and used, it can relieve food insecurities in a way that other universities can’t.”
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