Updated: Mar 2, 2021
Why are students at a world-class institution struggling with food insecurity?
By Chase Cutarelli
As the year comes to a close and family feasts begin, you’ve probably committed at least one of the seven deadly sins, if not more. While many of us may take for granted the privilege that allows us to indulge every now and then, especially this holiday season, a lot of students on campus can hardly afford a trip to the grocery store.
The Food Pantry at Columbia resides on the fifth floor of Lerner Hall. While to some the prospect of having a pantry at an institution as wealthy as ours may sound preposterous, the organization seeks to address the widespread issue of food insecurity on campus. Although CC and SEAS have not collected data on undergraduate food, a survey conducted last spring by the GS administration found that close to 40 percent of non-joint or dual-program GS students experience food insecurity. The 2018 Columbia Student Well-Being Survey found that 19 percent of participants “had trouble paying for basic necessities like food, clothing, housing, and transportation” some of the time and 10 percent of participants had trouble paying for them all the time.
Illustration by Kate Steiner
The pantry isn’t huge––it’s a few shelves lined with canned tomato sauce, beans, pasta, and other nonperishables, as well as vouchers for fresh produce through the Corbin Hill Food Project. But its presence has revealed an evident food insecurity on campus; since its inception in 2016 as a primarily GS-oriented group, it has given out over 2,500 disbursements across Columbia’s undergraduate and graduate schools. Although it is a member of the Food Bank for New York City, the Pantry is completely student-run, which raises the question: why didn’t the University act first to address food insecurity?
Last spring, the Blue and White was able to interview some of the leaders behind the Pantry about the organization’s relationship with Columbia’s administration and student press. “The University has basically reached out to us and said, ‘You know what? Yes. We acknowledge that [food insecurity] is way bigger than what we want to handle on our own,’” Co-Founder and Chair of the Pantry, Michael Higgins explained. “‘We [Columbia] could handle it on our own […] but we don’t have the time nor the desire to do that.’” Rather than manage the group, the school has supported its pantry monetarily. Among numerous donations, including a $15,250 grant from the Philanthropy Lab in 2018 and an annual endowment of $5,000 from Columbia Dining as of this April, the most significant contribution has come from the Dean of General Studies, Lisa Rosen-Metsch, who promised in May to give $50,000 to the Pantry over the course of five years. The lattermost gift came after negotiations to integrate Swipe Out Hunger, a nonprofit whose central solution to college food insecurity involves sharing meal swipes amongst peers. However, the talks ended with the decision to provide financial assistance to the Pantry instead.
“It was bound to happen eventually, but the reason it happened was [because] we had boots on the ground before,” Higginsadded. “We had an administratorin avery high-level position who supported us.” Such support may suggest universal adulation. Not so. Last February, the Spectator published an op-ed criticizing the Pantry for its meager offerings, inconvenient hours, and connections with the city’s food bank that indicate a reallocation of goods from the truly impoverished into the hands of a world-class institution. “The claim that we’re run by the Food Bank of New York City […] was a little over-the-top ridiculous,” Matthew Linsky, Vice Chair of Events Coordination, said in May. Instead of directly combating the arguments made by the op-ed, the Food Pantry responded with an explanation of its progress over the past three years and the developments that will secure its existence in the years to come.
Indeed, as the Pantry makes plans to expand to Columbia’s Medical Campus, the future seems bright for this organization. “There’s a lot of growth that’s still happening, and before we know it, [our current leaders are] all going to be gone,” Higgins noted. “Everything that is happening today, we need to ensure that will continue to happen five years from now, ten years from now, twenty years from now.”
What else could the University be doing to combat food insecurity on campus? In an article in the Journal of College and Character, higher education scholar-practitioner Clare Cady argues that an institution’s first short-term response should be to assessthe number ofstudents experiencing food insecurity on campus more thoroughly, looking specifically at the various types of food insecurity students are experiencing. If the Columbia Student Well-Being Survey asked about food insecurity in particular instead of just financial insecurity more broadly, the University could use this information to connect students to local resources. In the long term, Columbia could devote significantly more attention to researching the prevalence of this issue, especially the ways it might particularly affect underserved populations like first-generation and low-income students. These actions, complemented with donations to the Pantry, would effectively address food insecurity financially as well as administratively while helping leaders like Higgins and Linsky better serve students in need.
The Food Pantry at Columbia is open on Mondays and Thursdays from 4PM to The Food Pantry at Columbia is open on Mondays and Thursdays from 4PM to 7PM in Lerner 582