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Friday, June 14, 2024
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When UW-Madison’s food programs close for winter break, these students go hungry

Without dining halls and many student-run food organizations, many students have issues meeting their needs over winter break.

It’s early January. After a long day of work, a student tries to enjoy her microwaved frozen dinner in her dorm room, alone. 

It’s a far cry from ​warm meals shared over laughs in the dining hall. Without university resources, many University of Wisconsin-Madison students said they struggled with food insecurity over winter break. 

Dining halls are the main food source for most students living in the dorms. But all dining halls close on the final day of the semester, only reopening a week before classes start due to low staffing and customer demand, according to an email from University Housing.

During break, only the Flamingo Run convenience store is open for limited hours

“Student organizations take on the responsibility of food insecurity during the school year,” said UW-Madison sophomore Chloe Shomo, an Associated Students of Madison (ASM) intern working on a project addressing winter break food insecurity.

When students leave, those resources run dry. Organizations like The Open Seat, a student-run food pantry, and the Food Recovery Network, which fights food insecurity by serving free meals with food recovered from university dining halls, are no longer options during break because most students running them are gone.

The same is true for the UW Frozen Meals Program, which packages unserved dining hall food into frozen meals available for students to pick up twice a week. The program, run by two student coordinators and predominantly student volunteers, does not operate over break because it uses dining hall surpluses.

University Housing recommends students purchase groceries, prepare food in dorm kitchens or “visit one of the student-led organizations providing free/reduced-cost food on campus,” in a press release to The Daily Cardinal.

But without typical resources being available, those staying over winter break struggle with the transition and affording nutritious food. 

“I just got whatever was the cheapest, or I just wouldn’t eat very much,” said Ashley Hagen, a sophomore at UW-Madison who stayed on campus over winter break last year. She’s planning to do the same this year.

Most easily accessible grocery stores near campus, like Fresh Market and Trader Joe’s, are unaffordable for low-income students. Cooking in the communal residence hall kitchens was difficult for some due to lack of materials and skills. 

“Growing up, my mom was just way too busy to teach us how to cook,” UW-Madison sophomore Joy Rasch said. She doesn’t feel equipped to cook for herself.

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Students also skipped meals due to lack of food access. “I regularly skipped lunch,” Rasch said. Hagen typically ate one meal a day, and many students said they try to make food last as long as possible.

“I had gone and done a bunch of meal exchanges at Flamingo market, I maxed them out. I would freeze food to spread it out. I even tried to take a little bit of food from the dining halls to freeze,” Hagen said.

Not enough resources, students say

UW-Madison offers some resources for students who struggle with food insecurity or to meet their other needs.

In the Office of Financial Aid, students can schedule meetings to discuss how to access resources to meet their basic needs. 

UW-Madison offers Purposity, a program that matches donors with student requests for hygiene products, clothing or food. The program is “intended to support students experiencing current struggles meeting their daily basic needs,” according to its website.

While helpful for some, Shomo said the program isn’t a cure-all. “There’s not someone who can hand you money for your needs.” 

The Office of Financial Aid suggested resources to Shomo that would not be available over all of break.

“Though we are closed to the public for the first week of winter break, we will be monitoring email during that time and still available to support students experiencing financial crisis,” the Office of Financial Aid said in a statement to the Cardinal. “Our team is here to help students navigate food resources one on one, especially the availability of food pantries and some of their adjusted hours.” 

University Housing shares resources like bus schedules and off-campus food options, but Shomo said they “haven’t done a great job in the past.” 

Information access was a concern for Rasch.

“There definitely could have been more of a support with sending out emails on things that they were doing,” Rasch added.

University Housing provides those staying over winter break with QR codes informing them about “transportation options, local events and campus support resources,” the office said in a statement. 

Last year, they emailed students options like the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and The River Food Pantry, which both deliver meals, but only a few times a month.

Most off-campus food pantries are inaccessible to students without cars, which makes getting to them a “logistical nightmare,” Shomo said.

Before winter break this year, housing emailed inaccurate transportation and food resources including electric B-Cycle which is closed from Dec. 15 to Mar. 15. Housing has since corrected these errors.

As a part of her ASM intern project, Shomo compiled a comprehensive food resource list for students staying on campus over break.

“I think one of the reasons this happens is because food equity can shuffle around between different departments. There's not one person on campus,” Shomo said. “Admin has been really receptive to Band-Aid solutions, but in terms of actionable solutions, there's a lot of hesitation because it takes money. I would love for the university to put some more money into things.” 

How students make do

Without access to dining halls or fresh food, students' diets became synonymous with the stereotypical innutritious college diet. Sandwiches, ramen and frozen meals were the primary food groups. Shomo tried to make big-batch meals like pasta out of mainly canned ingredients.

Making use of the residence hall kitchens was difficult because front desks — where students can check out pots, pans and other cooking utensils — are only open two hours a day.

“I could not access a can opener. That is still my biggest complaint,” Shomo said. “Thankfully, I had this bottle opener that kind of had an opener on it.”

Even when the desk is open, there’s no guarantee students can access the cooking equipment they need. Hagen said there were some instances where other students did not return items to the front desk, leaving her unable to check things out.

University Housing plans to make kitchen items available at more hours so residents are not limited by the reduced schedule.

Students often were only able to access affordable food by taking rides from friends with cars, who could drive them off campus. 

“My friend took me to Walmart, so I was very thankful for that,” Rasch said. 

Shomo did most of her shopping at Woodman’s. “It's really hard to transport groceries around,” she added.

The effects on students

Students’ mental and physical well-being are negatively affected by insufficient food access.

“It was very stressful not being able to have a basic need met. It’s hard to focus on pretty much anything else,” Hagen said. She, like other students, said her well-being was affected by food insecurity.

Hagen, a hospital worker, and Rasch agreed that skipping meals affected their energy and ability to get through the day. Two meals a day left Rasch feeling drained.

“If I was to go out and be physically active, I don't think I would have enough energy to do so,” Rasch said.

And with the majority of students off-campus, students lose communities they built over the fall semester.

“The biggest part of it, besides nutrition, is just the emotional stuff you get from a warm meal and eating with friends,” Shomo said. “I lost out on all that over break.” 

Rasch and Shomo lived on the same floor during winter break. They both shared how meaningful the few meals they shared together were.

Shomo said the two most affected groups are independent students who don't receive financial or emotional support from family or parents and international students who can’t return home for winter break. 

“I would compare my situation with other people at home who were eating home-cooked meals, and that does not help with my loneliness at all,” Rasch said. 

“I didn’t have anywhere else to go,” Shomo said.“When I was living in the dorm, that was my home.”

Without familial or other support, independent students felt UW-Madison was not fulfilling their needs. 

“I feel like they forgot about the students who did stay over winter break in the dorms,” Rasch said. “I didn't feel like I could reach out — I was relying on the university, and they weren’t really there.”

Shomo emphasized the same point.

“Students leave, hungry doesn't.”

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Mary Bosch

Mary Bosch is the photo editor for The Daily Cardinal and a first year journalism student. She has covered multiple stories about university sustainability efforts, and has written for state and city news. Follow her on twitter: @Mary_Bosch6


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