A bare hallway forks off of Lerner’s fifth floor—it is abruptly narrow, a welcome retreat from the ramp-adorned expanse of raw space that is Lerner proper. At its end, just beyond the freight elevators, is Columbia’s newly expanded Food Bank, the first in the Ivy League.
A week before its official opening, I speak to its chair, Michael Higgins, who will graduate from the School of General Studies in 2021. We meet at the Food Bank, where two open doors at the end of the hall reveal shelves stocked with nonperishable items: Jif peanut butter to the right, with Quakers Oats lining the shelf up top.
Higgins, who was chief policy representative in General Studies Student Council at the time, and University Senator Ramond Curtis co-founded the Food Bank, during finals week in May 2016. It was first launched as a beta test, a pop-up housed in a closet in Lewisohn. Despite the fact that the Food Bank provided food to students in all four schools, it was a GSSC initiative because the need for a food bank was met with initial reluctance from other student councils due to perceived lack of demand. The council continued the program through midterms and finals the following academic year, offering students food disbursement by appointment during other times throughout the semester.
During this period of growth, Higgins explains, the Food Bank saw consistent demand. On opening, the Bank had visitors within days—not just from GS, but from all schools.
In March 2017, nearly a year after launching their beta operation in Lewisohn, Higgins and Curtis were promised the new space in Lerner. Higgins compares the Food Bank to a hermit crab “that outgrows the shell, and moves into another shell.” He anticipates that this location is not the initiative’s final destination, however, but for now Lerner is an ideal, central location. By the end of this summer, after outgrowing their little closet—which they shared with two other departments, including CUIT—they moved into a permanent Campus Services space, which Higgins says is three times as large.
According to Higgins, the Food Bank has surpassed 300 food recipients since its inception. These numbers help bolster the cause for support. When asked about complications he has faced throughout the process of the food bank, Higgins says, “A couple of the councils wanted to confirm that there was an actual need on campus.” In December 2016, Columbia College Student Council voted against the GSSC-proposed food bank, its decision attributed to the lack of a concrete budget presented at the meeting.
When I arrive at the Food Bank, Higgins is finishing up a conversation with Kai Segall, the Food Bank’s chair of operations, and another student at General Studies The Food Bank’s board is entirely made up of students. It is a student-created, student-run endeavor, just like most efforts to address food insecurity in the last few years, which include a student-launched meal sharing app, Swipes, and the Emergency Meal Fund, both of which were led by student councils.
Prior to the University’s involvement in student-led initiatives like the Food Bank, Columbia supported food-insecure students through its financial aid packages, which can cover up to “Meal Plan B,” or 175 meals a semester, which is roughly 11 to 12 meals per week. However, students can choose to receive the money instead for other uses.
“What happens is that students will sometimes opt out because they need that money,” Segall explains.
She observes that students may need the money for a winter coat, for textbooks, or to send money back home to their families.
“Sending that money back means that they don’t have to work 40-hour weeks and they can focus on their studies,” Segall says.
The Food Bank has a space on its board reserved for a member of the First-Generation Low-Income Partnership board. Segall, who is also FLIP’s chair of food insecurity, currently occupies this spot. “My family is extremely low income, we are below the poverty line,” she explains, “and I think that when I came to Columbia, it was very much a culture shock.”
In 2015, food insecurity came to the forefront of campus discourse, when FLIP launched the “Class Confessions”Facebook page. “There’s a big stigma attached with financial insecurity and food insecurity,” Segall says. “And it doesn’t feel good to have to go and ask people to help you feed yourself.” She notes that many people were staying silent about their experiences until Class Confessions offered an anonymous platform to share.
“Within the first few months we had about 400 confessions and I would estimate that more than half of them were about food insecurity,” Segall explains.
From then on, more and more students began opening up about their own experiences dealing with food insecurity. Christine Janumala, who will graduate from GS this fall, expanded on this idea when she talked to PBS in 2015. “Being food insecure is so alienating to begin with,” she says. “But there’s an extra layer of ‘I don’t belong’ when you go to such a prestigious university, where food is usually an afterthought for most people.”
In 2016, Anna Demidova, then a senior in GS, spoke to The Eye about her experiences with food insecurity at Columbia. “All my savings, everything I had in the bank, went towards the tuition,” she said. “So the money that I was essentially able to make from my part-time jobs went to pay for rent. And food was the last expense that was in my mind or even in my budget.”
Barnard senior Toni Airaksinen also elaborates on what food insecurity even means. It’s not just hunger, she explains to me over the phone. “It’s a combination of things like hunger and not having enough access to fresh food or only having access to unhealthy foods.” (Airaksinen has written a series of op-eds for Spectator on food insecurity at Columbia and spoke to the Washington Post in 2016 on her involvement in addressing food insecurity on and off campus.)
She notes that she herself does not face food insecurity, but explains that though she has a full ride to Barnard, throughout college she has worked thirty to sixty hours a week. Though Airaksinen says that her grades have not suffered, for many students, this additional high commitment in order to fight food insecurity could be detrimental to their academic success.
This year, students in FLIP and in the student councils together launched another effort to address food insecurity through dining hall swipe redistribution. Share Meals, an app developed by a New York University student, is now available at Columbia. In addition to facilitating anonymous transfer of dining hall meal swipes, Share Meals also allows clubs to post about events with free food, with a map that will regularly update. The app hopes to avoid Swipes’ shortcomings and offer Columbia students an anonymous service for easier access to available food.
Swipes was developed by then-Columbia seniors Julio Henriquez and Helson Taveras in 2015 and run by four Columbia students with the intention of allowing students to donate their meal swipes to students who were in need. The collaboration between FLIP and Share Meals was prompted by Swipes’ ultimate inadequacy to address students’ needs.
“Swipes was great, but it didn’t get enough traction,” Segall says. The app’s leadership had difficulty covering development costs, revealing a drawback to efforts run outside of administrative channels.
The app was launched in 2015, along with the Emergency Meal Fund, which allotted six free meal vouchers for dining hall meals per semester to students in need. The EMF was created by CCSC, in partnership with FLIP, to allow for more anonymous access to programs for food-insecure students. In 2016, it was was taken over by Campus Services.
The initiatives to address food insecurity on campus follow a coherent trend: Student leadership creates a program, and once it has been well established, Columbia adopts it or helps support it in other ways.
Curtis feels that the Emergency Meal Fund is inefficient. “If you want three square meals a day, you’ve got two days,” he notes.
In April 2016, Airaksinen wrote a column for Spectator in which she argued that the EMF and similar efforts fail to address “chronic food insecurity.” Speaking to me, she says, “if there’s a cap on the amount of meal swipes, people are going to still probably go hungry.”
Though the EMF is now a University operation, it, like many other efforts, was initiated by students. Measures taken from outside the University can have a significant impact on the student body, but it remains to be seen whether they can have far-reaching impact on the lives of food-insecure students even with administrative collaboration.
Though the Food Bank is completely student-run, Higgins feels that the administration has been supportive of its efforts. “As it stands right now, the relationship with the administration is great.”
Higgins believed that the Food Bank had a fast turnaround time in being approached by the administration. “[Ramond Curtis and I] thought to ourselves that this would take probably two or three years of us grinding like this in order to get to a point where the administration would even look at us,” he reflects.
But that didn’t happen. “There’s a lot of bureaucracy at Columbia,” Segall explains. “And so it did take a long time to get things rolling, but they were very supportive and very willing to help.” She adds that CU Dining had been wonderful to both FLIP and the Food Bank.
Higgins feels that the University will respond to further requests for support for the Food Bank when they prove that their business model is working and thriving. It will show the administration that food insecurity is a problem on campus, as well as emphasize that the Food Bank leaders are doing everything they can to curtail the problem.
Ultimately—bureaucracy and all—it seems the administration has begun to treat food insecurity as a legitimate problem on campus. In spring 2016, James Valentini, dean of Columbia College, told the Washington Post, “If even a single student is having a problem at Columbia, then we feel bad about that.” Nevertheless, the next step, a change in the dining and financial aid systems, has not been addressed.
Food insecurity continues to complicate the lives of low-income Columbia students, and while meaningful stopgap measures do not address the underlying causes, they are precursors for structural change. But with absent administrative initiative or support, it does not appear a comprehensive transformation of the current system is likely.
In a CCSC general body meeting this February, University Senator Sean Ryan noted that the administration was not providing enough support to students. “I don’t understand what the University’s game plan is when there’s kids going hungry, but they’re going to leave this to student council bodies and student life budgets to solve that problem,” he said.
However, Segall notes that it is important for students to initiate these programs, as food-insecure students have the best idea of what must be done to address their specific needs. “I think that an administrator who probably has never experienced food insecurity or even knows what poverty looks like wants to help but sometimes doesn’t know how.”
Elise Fuller, CCSC’s inclusion and equity representative, agrees that starting from the voices of students facing food insecurity is crucial for the success of programs. She applies this idea to different problems affecting Columbia students, like mental health. “We’re the ones that are actually experiencing it,” she tells me early one Sunday morning. And oftentimes, she feels, the best ideas to address it have come from the students.
“I feel that the best thing that the administration can do is listen to us and I think that students helping students is very helpful too,” Fuller explains.
Curtis attributes much of the lack of cohesive efforts to address food insecurity by the Columbia administration on its decentralized nature. The differences that exist between each school or program—whether academic or demographic—lead to what Curtis refers to as “pockets.” “I don’t think that decentralization is a bad thing,” he reflects. “I think that it changes the way in which some things can unfold.”
Higgins admits that he’s conflicted on how the University could go about addressing the problem. He feels that, while ensuring that every student has 21 meals a week would be ideal, it would come at an extremely high cost—“astronomical”—that could result in increases in tuition.
Many colleges have taken other measures to address food insecurity from within. For instance, Harvard created a program in 2016 that offers students on financial aid cash stipends over spring break to use for meals. Columbia did something similar with the Dean’s Assistance Fund, although the issue has been largely resolved with dining halls remaining open during break.
Other schools have increased the number of meals they offer to students on financial aid. Namely, Oberlin has begun requiring first-year students to have a 300-meal-per-semester plan, which, according to its FAQ from April 2017, “increases the baseline dining plan from two meals to three meals a day.” They add that this change will be at no additional cost to students who receive need-based financial aid.
At UC Berkeley, a UC Undergraduate Experience Survey prompted the University to “institutionalize a comprehensive food security model: to work towards eliminating hunger on campus.” The UC Berkeley Food Security Committee, which is composed of students, staff, faculty, and administrators, has developed an emergency model. The program includes the Food Assistance Program through financial aid and the UC Berkeley Food Pantry, which is similar to Columbia’s Food Bank, but not entirely student-run.
Columbia’s school of General Studies administration has taken certain active internal measures to alleviate the impact of food insecurity on its students. Meal vouchers to Strokos Deli are offered to General Studies students upon request, and the school makes an effort to offer food at student events, according to a GS spokesperson. Last fall, GS also launched the Educational Assistance Stipend, which provides emergency small-scale grants to students.
Whether justified or not, the administration’s initial lack of involvement in the conception and initiation of efforts to address food insecurity creates a void that someone has to fill. And in this case, it has been students—student leaders, student volunteers, and student activists. Students are taking the lead, a solidarity that many of those I talked to felt is the most powerful of all.
I attend the third Food Bank training session for new volunteers, which Curtis leads. We sit in a conference room, a glass box of sorts that muffles student chatter below and above us into a pulsating hum. As students of all ages and from all colleges trickle in, each opening of the door brings a clap of thunder that shatters the thick glass walls’ deceptive seclusion. The meeting’s goal is to make the Food Bank as efficient as possible, which they hope a new system of food disbursement will achieve.
Curtis maintains that he hasn’t faced any obstacles from the administration—that they’ve been supportive every step of the way. Where he says the Food Bank has faced the most difficulty, however, is seeking co-sponsorship from student leadership.
He admits that much of the resistance he has faced from other schools’ student councils comes from the notion that GS students are most significantly impacted by food insecurity on campus. This understanding comes from the fact that GS students requested 68 percent of EMF meals used in fall 2015 and 54 percent of meals used in spring 2016. Additionally, GS students do not receive need-based financial aid and, as of 2016, less than 10 percent of the GS student body was enrolled in a dining plan. Finally, many GS students tend to live off campus and have additional, non-tuition expenses, like rent and often, familial support.
However, Curtis emphasizes his belief that food insecurity disproportionately affecting GS students may be a misconception and that the rate of EMF usage should not be used to make such a general claim.
“We want to see more student leadership stepping up and being a part of this,” he says. “This isn’t about how many of your students use it. This is about coming together as student leadership at Columbia, not just at your school. We are going to work together as student leaders across this university to make sure that our people, our students—doesn’t matter if you go to SIPA or CC or School of Professional Studies or whatever—that you don’t deal with food insecurity.”
An influx of student support for the Food Bank since the initiative sent out an email in early summer reveals that perhaps Curtis’ hopes are becoming realized. “We’ve had an outpouring of volunteers,” Higgins reflects fondly, at the end of our conversation. “Individuals want to help. They know that there’s a problem.”
Curtis told Spectator earlier this month that after sending out the initial email to the student body, their disbursements increased by “400 percent.”
Inherent within attempts to mitigate the acute impact of socioeconomic stratification is student labor, time, and determination—from students facing food insecurity themselves, and from students who care about ending it. Administrative involvement appears to be contingent on students beginning the process.
And it seems the Columbia community is dedicated to seeing this through.
“People are falling into line and doing whatever they possibly can,” Higgins reflects, “to combat something that we knew was a problem all along.”
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