Updated Thursday, Oct. 18 at 11:12 p.m.
Newly released data collected by The Food Pantry at Columbia reveals that the effects of food insecurity are felt beyond just undergraduates in General Studies, and indicates a need for more robust resources for food-insecure students University-wide.
The total number of disbursements given out by the Food Pantry has surged since the last academic year from to 259 to 833. In particular, the number of disbursements given to Barnard College and Columbia College students in need of the food pantry has close to doubled, from 20 to 53 and from 29 to 53 respectively. The number of disbursements for undergraduate engineering students has quadrupled from 10 to 43.
Food insecurity on campus is not new or uncommon. The Food Pantry was founded in 2016 to combat hunger across campus by providing non perishable food to students who need it.
While General Studies students face factors including less-robust financial aid that make them uniquely prone to food insecurity, Food Pantry Chair Michael Higgins said that the data collected by the pantry dispels the perception that food insecurity is solely a General Studies issue.
“Since [the food pantry] has its roots in GS it will always seem like a GS-centric issue … [but] our numbers show every school is affected,” he said.
For many students, the pantry serves as their main source of food. According to Higgins, the average student comes to the food pantry once a week, taking only what they can carry. A full disbursement should cover one and a half weeks worth of food, Higgins said.
Higgins said that pantry, which has become a member of the Food Bank for NYC, offers healthy and non perishable items from the main food groups, including proteins and carbs.
While Columbia touts a commitment to socioeconomic diversity, the University’s conspicuous wealth can be difficult to navigate for students who identify as low-income and/or food insecure.
One Columbia College student, who identifies as food insecure and spoke to Spectator on the condition of anonymity, underscored how Columbia’s environment has made them hyper-aware of their daily struggles with food insecurity.
“Columbia sways toward people who are more wealthy than non-wealthy. You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t have a certain amount of money. People here have nice clothing and are walking around with Sweetgreen and Joe’s Coffee,” they said. “People are embarrassed and don’t want to admit they don’t have enough money to provide for themselves. People probably don’t go to the pantry with their friends. … It impacts your social life.”
First-Generation Low Income Partnership Food Insecurity Chair Miguel Yepes, SEAS ’20, further highlighted the need to focus on food insecurity as an issue that affects all students.
“This is by no means just a GS problem. ... What contributes to food insecurity on the CC and SEAS side deals more with meal plans and incentives to take lower meal plans. … Students take 75 meals a semester or no meal plan at all,” he said.
Despite the surge in number of users, the CC student said that the awareness surrounding food-insecurity is not reflective of the severity to which some students face hunger on campus.
“No one looks like they’re hungry here. ... Never this year have I heard someone say they are hungry or can’t afford food… no one talks about it,” they said. “People look down on people who don’t have money.”
Yepes said that Columbia’s environment adds to existing pressure on food insecure students.
“This school is internationally known for its academic rigor and [students] should not have to worry about what they are going to eat while dealing with that,” he said.
FLIP is currently working on various initiatives to address food insecurity, including the CU Food Share group on Facebook, a meal sharing app, and promotions for the emergency meal fund, a University resource through which food-insecure students can claim a limited number of free meal swipes per semester.
However, students have expressed the need for products beyond what the pantry offers.
“[There is] no fresh produce … no fresh fruits, vegetables, [no] bread or meat … they provide peanut butter but no bread to put it on,” the CC student said.
Columbia College Student Council Senior Class President Mina Mahmood, CC ’19, said that CCSC is currently working on initiatives to combat the the inaccessibility of Columbia’s current dining plans.
“The cheapest dining plan is over $1000 and won’t even feed you once a day. And it’s so common to be like ‘let’s go grab dinner.’ I think that sometimes [CCSC] gets lost too much in the future and working [to] reduce the price of plans. Let’s address the immediate issues. The pantry is not allowed to have perishables, but now we have extended the [Morningside Heights farm share program],” she said.
Under the new CCSC initiative, students can register for the Morningside Heights CSA at the subsidized price of $20 for the semester rather than the original price of $230.
Although the Food Pantry is still expanding, students have expressed concern that it is not a permanent or long-term solution to food insecurity.
“FLIP and the food pantry alone cannot address this by ourselves,” said Yepes. “We need the support of the Columbia community as a whole, of administration, of the councils. We need the whole school to be aware and collaborate together to fight this issue.”
A previous version of this article misrepresented the Food Pantry’s data. All usage numbers in the article represent the number of disbursements given, not the number of students who use the Food Pantry. Spectator regrets this error.