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Tuesday, July 27, 2021
Slow food volunteers prepare a meal in the basement of the crossing. They see themselves as resources, not solutions to food insecurity.

Slow food volunteers prepare a meal in the basement of the crossing. They see themselves as resources, not solutions to food insecurity.

Food justice organizations call for institutional solutions to food insecurity

“There's a village on a river,” Charlie Koczela begins. “And there are people in the river, drowning. The people in the village keep on pulling them out, but they never actually look to see who is pushing them in the river in the first place.”

Koczela is the Executive Director of Slow Food UW, a student organization that strives to advance food justice on campus through affordably priced, locally sourced and freshly cooked meals.

It’s Monday night and Koczela is in the basement of The Crossing, slicing loaves of homemade bread. In less than an hour, nearly 100 people will stream into the dining room to share the meal he and his team are preparing. Because of a pay-it-forward program Koczela helped establish, some of these guests will eat for free.

Koczela stumbled across the river metaphor last year, in a book called Sweet Charity? Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement by Janet Poppendieck. Since then, he said it has been on his mind a lot.

“It’s the idea that a lot of programs targeted toward people who are food insecure miss the larger point,” he explained. “The problems exist, so Slow Food is going to do its best to address them, but the real causes are upstream.”

Koczela and some of the other students who run the organizations the university has identified as food resources believe that many of those upstream problems originate within the university itself.

“The university realizes that if it can just promote these student organizations and give them more resources, the spotlight won’t come back to [the university],” Koczela said. “It’s the fact that tuition is increasing, the fact that they make people pay more on their wiscard — things that are totally institutional causes of the problems.”

For in-state students, a six-year state-implemented tuition freeze has meant that their admission costs have actually stayed the same. Meanwhile, the burden has fallen to out-of-state students to make up the deficit between static in-state revenue, limited state funding and rising inflation. Their tuition has risen from $26,653 to $34,783 since the Walker administration froze tuition in 2013.

University officials agree that it is not the sole responsibility of student organizations to address hunger, but recognize that it has many causes. They said that creating programs to address other forms of financial insecurity will help

“We do think the university can and should amplify the work of student orgs by promoting it in our communications channels,” said Meredith McGlone, chief university spokesperson. “This should not be construed to imply that student orgs are solely responsible for this issue.”

McGlone pointed out that university efforts to address food insecurity cannot operate out of the context of broader issues of access and affordability on campus. Bucky’s Tuition Promise, Badger Promise and several other scholarship programs aim to widen food access by lessening the overall financial burden a student shoulders when they enroll at UW-Madison.

McGlone also defended the new meal plan policy, which mandates students living in university housing put a minimum initial deposit of $1,400 on their Wiscards prior to the start of the school year.

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“Regarding the meal plan changes instituted last year, it’s important to remember that was done in part because students and families wanted more information upfront about actual costs so they could better plan for expenses,” McGlone said. “Based on the number of students currently seeking assistance, we believe our existing resources and programs are appropriate; however, we continue to monitor this.”

According to McGlone, the school’s data is based on records of students who seek assistance, including emergency assistance. But due to its stigma and wide range of causes, food insecurity is notoriously hard to monitor.

“Week to week, a paycheck might be late or less than you thought, it’s not a permanent state for everybody. Especially at four-year institutions, food insecurity looks much less chronic and permanent,” Koczela explained. “It’s more of a transient issue, and I feel like the meal plan initiative misunderstood that reality.”

Nationwide studies have shown that as many as 20 percent of college 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 can be less likely to ask for help when they need it, many of their experiences go undocumented.

In a 2017 interview with UHS, Human Ecology professor Lydia Zepeda said she estimated the number of students who struggle with food insecurity at four year schools like UW-Madison may actually be quite a bit higher than where the national estimate places it.

If a students googles “Food Resources at UW-Madison,” they will be guided to a UHS directory that links them to additional help. Of the 10 resources listed on that webpage, only one is an official university program. The other nine are run or initiated by students, organizations based off-campus and government agencies.

In addition to Slow Food UW, those resources include F.H. King Students for Sustainable Agriculture, an organization that attempts to expand access to fresh produce on campus, and The Open Seat, a student-run food pantry.

Rena Yehuda Newman, F.H. King’s education director, echos Koczela’s concerns.

While Newman is committed to advocating for food justice, they are frustrated by the way UW-Madison “tokenizes” F.H. King’s efforts. They think the university has framed their organization as a solution to student hunger, while it has simultaneously maintained — and even amplified — institutional problems.

“What a clearer resource would look like is the university not pointing to student-created and student-funded organizations as solutions,” Newman said. “Instead, it looks like them being proactive to eliminate food waste from the dining halls by making sure all of that food gets redistributed to students who are most vulnerable, and to students who need it most.”

University Dining did begin donating food to Food Recovery Network in 2016 and to Open Seat in 2017. Donated food is also used by The Campus Kitchens Project to serve a weekly hot meal to students. Later this semester, Dining also plans to implement “share tables,” where students can place unopened items that they aren’t going to eat, so that other students, particularly those in need, can take them.

“We go to a multi-million dollar campus,” Newman said. “There’s no reason why any student should go hungry. We think that it’s important as an organization to recognize our own limits, and in recognizing our limits, expand the conversation.”

Koczela agrees. He considers his organization to be a resource for people dealing with food insecurity, not a long term solution to the problem.

“Going back to my initial metaphor, the people who are throwing others into the river have realized that they can just keep doing that because the village downstream will continue to save them,” Koczela said. “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 how can we help those who are food insecure.”

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