While most students have enough on their plate worrying about overwhelming homework and looming exams, some face a more pressing problem — finding their next meal or a place to stay the night.
For these students, homelessness and food insecurity cast shadows over many aspects of their lives.
“I will die in my debt. I’m still a homeless alumna, I have no job, I have nowhere else to go. This is my life forever. I have to live with this forever. And someone has to care,” said Brooke Evans, a UW-Madison alumna and an advocate for homeless members of the university community.
The Campus Climate survey, the first of its kind conducted by UW-Madison, revealed that food insecurity and homelessness on campus are significant obstacles for roughly 5,200 students. The survey was emailed to all students this fall, and included a question that resonated closely with some students:
“While a student at UW-Madison, have you always been able to afford sufficient food and housing?”
According to the findings, 12 percent of students said they could not always afford sufficient food and housing while at UW-Madison, which translates to roughly one-in-eight UW-Madison students. These students could be anyone — a friend in class who is relentlessly distracted from their work by stomach pains, a roommate who survives solely on a single box of ramen each day, or an acquaintance who might have to spend the night out in the cold.
Garrett T. Pauli, a senior who used food stamps in his first semester of college, said financial instability in any form can have both physical and emotional consequences.
“So many things are linked to our ability to eat and sustain ourselves,” Pauli said. “Our ability to focus dwindles, our ability to multitask gets more difficult and our anxiety can swell up. These stresses affected all parts of my life, emotionally, socially and physically.”
Rachel Litchman is a UW-Madison freshman who struggles with food insecurity. While working for University Dining, she said at the end of each shift employees throw away leftover food, which she said would have been still fine to eat.
“In those first few weeks where I was struggling to eat, this was one of the most difficult things to watch — it basically sent the message that I was worth less than the bottom of a trash can,” Litchman said.
Lydia Zepeda, a professor of consumer science at UW Madison, has done research on the importance of food and food access. In a qualitative study, she interviewed 20 people in and around Madison, seven of whom were UW-Madison students, who struggle with food insecurity.
“How can they [students] possibly pay attention and do their work when all they can think about is that they’re hungry?” Zepeda said. “You simply can’t be your best when you’re hungry."
Students who are homeless in college also feel these consequences. According to the office of Federal Student Aid, 58,000 students nationwide who are homeless, but the agency acknowledges the number to be underestimated.
According to Brendon Dybdahl, the director of marketing and communications for the Division of University Housing, 91.2 percent of the fall 2017 first year class lived in University Housing, leaving 8.8 percent of students who live at home, off campus, elsewhere, or, in some cases, without any steady housing.
Food insecurity and homelessness on college campuses is not just a concern for the 12 percent of students at UW Madison. According to the American Colleges and Universities’ Hunger on Campus report, 48 percent of respondents struggled with food insecurity in the previous month.
In comparison with other studies, like the Campus Climate survey, which focus on individual universities, the Hunger on Campus report was broader and covered many campuses.
The study found that 22 percent of students reported “very low levels of food security that qualify them as hungry” and that 81 percent of these students reported their academics suffered because of it. Additionally, 15 percent of food insecure students were homeless, according to the report.
At UW-Madison, students from underrepresented campus groups had much higher rates of food and housing insecurity than cis, white student populations.
29 percent of trans/non-binary students, 24 percent of students with a disability, 18 percent of LGBQ+ students, 18 percent of students of color, 23 percent of Muslims, 22 percent of first generation college students and 22 percent of students from a working-class background all reported food and/or housing insecurity.
Although the question was included in the survey, the findings concerning food insecurity and homelessness were not listed with the rest of the “Key Findings.” The statistics can only be accessed in a thorough search of the Technical Report, which is linked on a sidebar labeled “Learn More” in the Creating Community and Diversity webpage.
According to Evans, who wrote the question, the omission of the data from the “Key Findings” is an “overt, intentional act to exclude the homeless population from the press material.”
“I want to understand how data collected for the first time in 169 years was not designated as a key finding and why it’s missing completely from anything that has been released,” Evans said. “They don’t mention a single product or program that students have created to address these issues.”
Alex Rinehart, a UW-Madison junior who is food and housing insecure, said she was furious about the missing information.
“It continues the campus’s ignorance about students suffering from these issues,” Rinehart said.
Litchman was also upset by the omission of the data, saying it silences those who are food and housing insecure.
“The best way to not address an issue is to not collect data on it,” Litchman said. “It erases voices by never providing them an opportunity to speak.”
University spokesperson Meredith McGlone said that UW-Madison supports students who are dealing with food and housing insecurity and is taking steps to address these issues.
“The campus climate survey asked nearly 200 questions on a wide range of topics and initial findings were highlighted with task force recommendations,” McGlone said.
She also said that the next step is to hold public forums on the survey where all questions and topics can be further addressed.
Even though the information was not prominently featured within the Campus Climate report, students and certain faculty are taking their own steps to provide assistance to struggling students.
For example, Pauli said The Open Seat, a food pantry created and run by students, “has been extremely helpful in supplementing me as a food source this past year.”
Kim Gromek, the internal director of The Open Seat, says their mission is to help alleviate food insecurity among students and that the group will not turn students away who say they are insecure.
“We don’t ask you to provide any proof, so if a student says they’re in need, we will help that student,” Gromek said.
There are other organizations on campus with similar goals; Campus Kitchens, Slow Food UW and UW Campus Food Shed all focus on providing free meals and produce to students with no questions asked.
Students can also dial the number 211, which will transfer them to information about resources for food, housing and many other types of support in their area.
Dybdahl said that University Housing is partnering with some of these organizations and also now accepts S.N.A.P. payments at Flamingo Run convenience store in Gordon Dining and Event Center. He also mentioned that Housing also now offers a Paul Evans Scholarship that provides $5,000 to two residents to help with their on-campus housing.
Though students and faculty are taking steps, food insecurity and homelessness continue to affect many students, some of whom are wary of asking for assistance. According to Zepeda, many students will try to hide the fact that they are food insecure.
“When I was interviewing students, they all became very emotional during the interviews because they hadn't shared this with anybody,” Zepeda said. “It’s very stressful to hide the fact that you’re not getting enough to eat.”
Students are often worried to share that they are struggling with these issues because they have been turned away when seeking help before.
“It gets exhausting to give the same answers year after year, because you wonder if you’re making any progress or just shouting into the void,” Evans said.
For Litchman, the best thing anyone can do to help a student struggling with food and housing insecurity is to be aware and compassionate of their situation.
“There need to be people on campus who can advocate for and uphold the rights of homeless students,” Litchman said. “We need to give this student population a voice.”