In-Depth

Food insecurity during COVID-19 impacts the nation and college campuses

Representatives of the Open Seat food pantry on campus say the pandemic brought a spike in students seeking help to stock their pantries

Representatives of the Open Seat food pantry on campus say the pandemic brought a spike in students seeking help to stock their pantries

Image By: Photo by Jeff Miller/UW-Madison

Food pantries around the globe have seen an uptick in food insecurity as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, and the UW-Madison campus is no exception. Here on campus, various food pantries such as the Open Seat have seen a drastic increase in the number of students, staff and faculty members alike who are struggling to find where their next meal is coming from. 

Roughly 54 million people do not know where their next meal is coming from in 2020, according to Feeding America’s projected report. Food insecurity in the United States has increased significantly due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The U.S. works to fight food insecurity through various programs both before and during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Food insecurity is prevalent amongst different communities in the U.S.; one such community includes college students. On the UW-Madison campus, 12% of students reported being either food or housing insecure at some point during their college career, according to a 2016 survey.

What it is and who is affected by it

“Food insecurity is when families and households are not competent in their ability to meet their food needs on a regular basis,” said Judi Bartfeld, a faculty member in the School of Human Ecology.

According to Feeding America, 11.5% of U.S. citizens were food insecure in 2018 — that’s roughly 37 million Americans. One of the biggest determinants of whether or not a family is food secure is income, Bartfeld found.

“Low income and unstable income are the largest factors that contribute to food insecurity,” said Bartfeld. “First and foremost it’s about not having enough resources to meet their needs.”

Due to the strong relationship between household income and ability to meet basic food needs, there tends to be a discrepancy between who is affected by food insecurity and who isn’t. 

“If you want to oversimplify things, rich people are less food insecure than poor people,” said Andrew Stevens, an assistant professor of agricultural and applied economics. 

Beyond income, however, Stevens described how different urban and rural areas can be food insecure due to food deserts, which are areas with restricted access to nutritious food. 

“Sub populations, either by race or ethnicity, can really be associated with food insecurity,” Stevens explained. “The disabled community is very food insecure relative to the rest of the population and that’s very understudied.”

During COVID-19

The ongoing health crisis has only exacerbated food insecurity, an issue prevalent throughout U.S. history. According to a Feeding America food insecurity projection, revised on April 22, 2020, COVID-19 could, if it has not yet already, threaten an additional 1% to 5.2% of Americans with food insecurity. 

Feeding America also reported 17 million additional people could become food insecure due to the pandemic — which would raise the national quantity to roughly 54 million Americans.

Both Bartfeld and Stevens explain this increase in food insecurity is likely due to an increase in unemployment. An additional outcome brought on by the pandemic is a loss of kid’s school meals. 

“Lots and lots of kids get breakfast and lunch at school on a regular basis for free, beginning in kindergarten,” said Bartfeld. “So when school closed, they lost access to those daily meals.”

Thankfully, one of the U.S.’s most effective social programs, according to Stevens, deals with food insecurity head-on. SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) — formerly known as Food Stamps — allocates money to be used for food to families that fall below certain income levels. 

“This program is, as far as public policy goes, really, really effective and means tested — which basically means that we’re very confident that the resources that go into this program have a meaningful effect on what we want them to do,” said Stevens. 

What’s unique about SNAP is that this program adjusts with the needs of the nation. 

“As more people fall under the income limits, the resources for SNAP increase and they contract again when there are fewer people who need it,” explained Stevens.

Food Insecurity on campus

Before the pandemic, Feeding America’s “Map the Meal Gap” reported relatively low numbers for food insecurity in the U.S. In 2018, Wisconsin fared better than the nation as a whole, reporting 8.9% of the population as food insecure compared with the national average of 11.5%.

Izzy Boudnik, External Director at the Open Seat, a food pantry here on campus located in the Student Activity Center, noted the uptick in need for such resources during the pandemic, especially when it first kicked off in the spring. 

“Right at the beginning in the spring, we had a lot of people come to us for help because they were panicking,” Boudnik said. “A lot of student workers were told they were getting laid off and wouldn’t have paychecks, so we saw a lot of people struggle to find where their next meal would come from or how were they going to pay for food.”

While Dane County fared better than Wisconsin as a whole (7.4% of the county’s population reported as food insecure), there remains a misconception about the prevalence of food insecurity among college students, according to Stevens. A 2019 Hope Center report found that of 86,000 students surveyed, 45% of the respondents were reportedly food insecure at some point in the last 30 days. 

“Those studies suggest there’s a whole lot more food insecurity on college campuses than people had previously thought,” said Stevens. “And that surprised a lot of people.” 

That high percentage could, however, be due to the kinds of questions being asked, according to Stevens. 

“When I was in college I ate pizza at a lot of club events, so on any given week if you asked me ‘do you know where my next meal was coming from, my answer might’ve been ‘no’,” Stevens said. ”But that wasn't because I was food insecure, it was [because] I hadn’t planned out my day.”

Food insecurity, especially on college campuses, remains a difficult thing to measure accurately as some studies and questions may not capture what it really means to be food insecure.

“It's been an interesting journey,” Boudnik said. “We established right away in March when everything started happening that we pretty much wanted to stay open no matter what, because we recognized that the situation would increase the number of people on campus who are experiencing food insecurity.” 

In partnership with Harvest Food Bank, the Open Seat will package Thanksgiving food boxes for almost 300 students and faculty members alike here on campus that will be distributed next week at Union South. 

Nevertheless, there remains a lack of awareness surrounding how food insecurity affects college students. UW-Madison has a page dedicated to helping students find the resources they might need. While food insecurity won’t be disappearing anytime soon, a continuous and recent increase in resources provides some hope for people, families, and students who might be at a loss. 

“My perception is that this has been a stressful time for students,” said Stevens. “There’s been more intense pressure for food insecurity amongst students but there are more visible resources for students than there would have been, say, five years ago.” 

Boudnik stressed the importance of their pre-covid shopping model of a food pantry that allows students to pick their own food in a grocery store-like setting. There is a plethora of research that indicates that the shopping model retains a sense of dignity and normalcy that in many settings has been forgotten during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Food insecurity can happen to almost anybody,” Boudnik said. “A parent could lose their job or someone could get sick and financial situations can change. It is important to have this safety net of support for all students here at UW-Madison.” 

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