University of Louisville sophomore Henny Ransdell says many college students have trouble affording food at one point or another. For her, it was while working a part-time job on campus over summer break.
“I wasn’t making a living wage,” Ransdell said. “I would just eat Taco Bell, like two tacos a day maybe.”
Food insecurity can mean missing one meal, missing several meals in a week, or simply not being able to eat a meal that’s nutritious enough, Ransdell explains.
“If you’re eating a diet of pizza and ramen, that’s food insecurity,” Ransdell said.
Students at the University of Kentucky held a hunger strike this week as a symbolic plea for the university to do more for students who struggle to afford food. The hunger strike ended Tuesday night as UK officials agreed to meet several demands — including for the university to start a “basic needs fund” to assist students who need help paying for food or housing.
“I dream about these things at night,” Ransdell said. “I would like to see some type of institutional structures making sure that we have these different resources available.”
Ransdell said she looks forward to the day when U of L offers more direct services to give students and staff financial assistance, or help them apply for federal food benefits. For now, she says she is very thankful that U of L has helped her and other students open a food pantry.
The student-run Cardinal Cupboard food pantry opened at U of L this semester. The pantry is tucked away in what used to be a utility closet in the Student Activity Center. The room may have a small footprint, but it’s stocked high with donations monitored by volunteers, like Weston Young.
Young greeted two students as they wandered into the pantry for the first time this week to check it out.
“This pantry is open to everyone — students, faculty and staff,” Young explained, in response to what he said is a common question about how someone can qualify to select food from the shelves.
Some students pop in to grab a day-old bagel from an on-campus cafe (to avoid food waste, an added bonus for campus sustainability, Ransdell said), while others come to restock their cupboards with dry goods.
When visitors to the pantry “check out” a volunteer simply weighs the food items to keep track of the pantry’s output. The Cardinal Cupboard gave out the equivalent of 250 meals in its first few weeks of operation, and is still being discovered by new students and staff every week.
Response To The UK Student Hunger Strike
Ransdell said she supports the University of Kentucky students who held a hunger strike to demand their school take action to combat food insecurity, but she doesn’t expect protests at U of L because she thinks the administration has been more open to working with students.
“I think if they see a flaw within the institution and they’re having a hard time communicating and trying to work with their institution on things, then I think it’s absolutely OK to peacefully protest and push forward their message,” Ransdell said.
Sara Goldrick-Rab, a researcher and national expert on the rising cost of college, advocates for better policies to address the complications of rising tuition, including food insecurity. She recently authored “Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream.”
Goldrick-Rab has been following the hunger strike at UK and said it is not surprising that college students would react if their administration fails to recognize food insecurity as an issue.
“Students feel strongly because their peers are demonstrably food insecure, and they understand the administration as trivializing it,” Goldrick-Rab said of the UK hunger strike. “It’s very unusual for college administrators to act in this manner on this issue.”
Goldrick-Rab points to an article in the University of Kentucky student newspaper in which a UK spokesperson questioned the validity of a 2017 survey that found that 43 percent of students at the university are food insecure.
A 2018 federal report that reviewed literature on food insecurity at various U.S. colleges found that no nationally representative survey data exists, but a majority of individual studies it reviewed suggest about 1 in 3 college students surveyed have faced food insecurity.
U of L spokesman John Karman said the university has not yet sponsored any survey to ask students about their access to food, but officials are aware it’s an issue. Ransdell said she knows of two surveys being conducted on campus this semester, but no results have been released yet.
“It’s a work in progress here, but I think our most visible effort — and the one we’re most proud of — is the student effort,” Karman said, referring to the Cardinal Cupboard food pantry.
Ransdell said she hopes the increased public attention around food insecurity, spurred by action like the UK hunger strike, will change people’s perception of what it means to be a broke college student.
“It’s seen as a right of passage or something that should be positive, or even funny, but it’s actually really problematic,” Ransdell said. “People don’t address the needs that come with being a ‘broke college student.’”