Ten minutes before 6:30 on a Monday night, the stairway leading into the basement of The Crossing is packed with students and community members. They are waiting in line to secure a seat at a communal dining room table for a fresh meal prepared by Slow Food UW.
Some of these guests will dine for free.
As an organization that strives to bring affordably priced, locally sourced and freshly cooked meals to the campus, providing resources for people experiencing food insecurity is one of Slow Food UW’s main goals, according to Slow Food Executive Director Charlie Koczela.
With that objective in mind, Slow Food UW developed a Pay it Forward program in 2015, which allowed guests to make donations to cover the cost of other attendees’ meals. It allowed people to request free meals — no questions asked.
But of the 100 or so people who, at an average Slow Food event, wait in line to buy a meal ticket and claim seats at a communal table in the basement of The Crossing, Koczela estimates that only two to five will request a free meal.
“We have a large excess of donations versus people who take advantage of them,” Koczela said. “It means we’re living in a supportive community, but also that we need to have more alleyways for people to use them.”
Now, Koczela is hoping a new online free meal request platform launched last Tuesday will help build those alleyways, and that the expansion will make the Pay it Forward initiative more accessible for more people. Monday’s Family Dinner Night event will mark the first dinner where guests will be able to request free meals in advance.
“Since the program started, we’ve been thinking how we can make this resource more accessible,” Koczela said. “Other studies have shown … that stigmatization and shame are often the reason people don’t access these programs.”
Some of these studies were conducted by Lydia Zepeda, a UW-Madison professor emeritus in the School of Human Ecology and a Slow Food UW faculty advisor.
In a 2017 study called “Hiding Hunger: Food Insecurity in Middle America,” Zepeda found that shame was a major reason people who qualify for food assistance can be hesitant to ask for it.
At Slow Food, asking for aid used to mean verbally requesting a free meal from a Slow Food UW intern, potentially in front of a line of peers. Koczela hopes adding the online request platform removes some of the anxiety and awkwardness that may have prevented students from accessing the resource in person.
“You don't have to worry about what other people are thinking about you in line or other societal pressures that make it seem like poverty is something to be ashamed of, or food insecurity is something to be ashamed of,” Koczela said. “But that’s all nonsense anyway.”
Nationwide studies have shown that as many as 20 percent of students experience food insecurity, and that the rate is roughly three times higher for first generation students and students of color.
But because students who sense a stigma surrounding food insecurity may be less likely to ask for help when they need it, their experiences may go undocumented. In a 2017 interview with University Health Services, Zepeda said she estimates the number of students who struggle with food insecurity at UW-Madison may actually be higher than where the national estimate places it.
According to UHS, the daily impact of food insecurity on a student is significant.
“The worry and the stress related to finances and nutrition can overshadow the student’s reason for being at UW-Madison,” said Molly Kloehn, a mental health care manager at UHS. “It is a huge barrier to success.”
For Koczela, creating an interface where community members can give and receive free meals is one way to close those gaps.
But while he said he is proud of the work Slow Food UW does, Koczela thinks food insecurity must be addressed on an institutional level as well.
“Although I think what Slow Food is doing through the Pay It Forward program is incredibly important, I think that everyone has an obligation to look for better policies and things that cause the food insecurity in the first place, not just asking how can we help those who are food insecure,” Koczela said. “The problems exist, and Slow Food is going to do its best to address them, but the real causes are upstream.”