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Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Reducing the stigma surrounding food insecurity

College students are hungry. 

That’s part of the bit, isn’t it? As much as taking their laundry home for mom and dad to do, the stereotype of the college student who subsides on instant noodles alone has been solidified in popular culture. In fact, as part of freshman convocation here at UW-Madison, each first-year student received a bag with a single packet of Ramen inside of it. 

The jokes about hungry students are partially a commentary on the price of a college education —there’s no money for food when you have to make a loan payment every month — but something that started out as lighthearted might not be so funny after all. 

A 2018 report by the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice surveyed nearly 86,000 students at two- and four-year colleges, where they found 45% of students to be food insecure in the 30 days prior to taking the survey. 

Food insecurity is defined as “the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe food, or the ability to acquire food in a socially acceptable manner.” 

Of only four-year students, 41% identified themselves as food insecure. 

Students at UW are not immune to this issue, in fact, it is one of the universities that administered the survey. But in my experience, food insecurity is largely forgotten and unspoken of, while topics like the high cost of rent are becoming more socially acceptable to discuss.

Like many topics that involve socioeconomic status, food insecurity on campus has to do with shame. It’s one thing to struggle to pay Madison’s exorbitantly high rent, as many students do. But if you can’t afford to feed yourself, what are you spending your money on? 

It’s much more complex than that, of course. But it can be difficult and intimidating to explain that to a UW student who buys a $9 salad from Forage for lunch every day. 

If we believe the research, then the truth is that some of the students sitting next to you in class struggle to access healthy foods on a regular basis. Yes — the same students who seem to have it all together based on their appearance and demeanor. 

Food insecurity is about more than skipping lunch and eating a big dinner later. It often means not being able to focus in class because you are too hungry, or being unable to study because you are worried about the source of your next meal. 

So what can we do?

First, each of us can work to change the culture around money and food on campus. If you’re asking to go out for a meal with someone, this can be as simple as letting them choose the restaurant. This way, the other person can choose a place that fits in their price range, no explanation necessary. You could even go as far as offering to cook together at home, which is often cheaper (and more fun). 

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Additionally, normalizing the use of campus resources surrounding food will facilitate greater access to such resources for students that need them. For example, I’ve taken friends with me to the Campus Food Shed(s), refrigerators that are stocked with overstock items from local grocery stores, so that we can discover what goodies are currently in the fridge together —making me feel less self-conscious while also introducing them to a new university program. 

There’s still a bit of awkwardness there; I can tell that some of my friends are made uncomfortable by the phrase “food shed,” and that some of them wonder why I know about the program. There are many reasons that a student could be reaching into the fridge, and not all of them have to do with money: maybe students want to reduce food waste, or pick up an item for a recipe. Either way, it’s no one’s business which category anyone falls into. As more students are seen using these resources, others will feel more comfortable doing so as well. 

Many other organizations on campus collect food from university dining halls and offer it to students for free with a Wiscard. Others, like Slow Food UW, charge a small fee for those that can pay but also offer the option of a “Pay It Forward” meal, which students can receive for free. Going to these events with friends is a fun, environmentally-friendly way to hang out together without putting pressure on anyone’s wallet.

While greater attention needs to be given to university policies surrounding food insecurity and basic needs for students, increased awareness of these issues by the student body will help students feel more comfortable sharing their experiences and getting help when they need it. 

Recognizing unhealthy behaviors, such as a friend remarking that they’ve “been so busy they haven’t had time to eat today,” and offering to help is another good step (especially as disordered eating becomes more common on college campuses). 

Food insecurity is an issue that can affect anyone, regardless of their identity. Though you may not be affected, it is important to recognize that sometimes the people you least expect may be struggling.

Izzy Boudnik is a junior studying Political Science, with a certificate in Educational Policy Studies. How do you think the university should address food insecurity on campus? Is there anything else students can do to reduce the stigma surrounding the issue? All comments should be sent to 

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