Currently, 50 million Americans are suffering from food insecurity, which is up from 35 million Americans at the beginning of 2019. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as the “lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy lifestyle.” In Charlottesville, the percentage of people suffering from food insecurity has increased since the onset of the pandemic and is higher than the state average at 17.5 percent, or one in six people. As the source of 86 percent of the overall COVID-19 cases in Charlottesville, the University has a moral obligation to help relieve the Charlottesville community from the burden of increased food insecurity resulting and exacerbated by the pandemic. The University can and must do more to aid students and improve its strained relationship with the Charlottesville community during this time of uncertainty.
Food insecurity is a public health crisis which has affected several vulnerable communities across Charlottesville and the nation. This includes 5.3 million elderly citizens and 17 million school children. Further, the overall pandemic — which has disproportionately affected the Black and Latinx community — has also led to an increase in food insecurity for these communities at a rate of 19.1 and 15.6 percent respectively. In Charlottesville, 33 percent of the population identifies as a member of a minoritized racial group. Statistically, these groups often struggle with other related socio-economic concerns. Among these are lacking access to affordable housing, chronic medical conditions and low wages. The federal government often allocates funds to help citizens facing food insecurity and other socio-economic hardships through programs such as SNAP and TANF. However, many low-income citizens — and especially college age students within these demographics — continue to find these programs to be inaccessible.
Unfortunately, American legislators are not doing nearly enough when it comes to addressing the problem. Legislation H.R.3718 — Closing the College Hunger Gap Act of 2019 — was introduced by the House of Representatives in 2019 and aimed to specifically address the increasing food insecurity dilemma. However, the bill is still in the beginning stages as other economic relief bills such as the CARES Act and COVID-19 Economic Relief Bill have understandably taken precedence. Likewise, although the third stimulus check is now accessible to certain college students, not all low-income college students and those who are food insecure qualify to receive one.
Food insecure students who do not qualify for government food assistance or any of the recent government stimulus checks were put under increased financial and physical stress with the opening of college campuses. These openings not only contributed to the rise in COVID-19 cases across the nation, but placed students under increased duress. Even with increased testing and social distancing measures put in place by respective colleges, the economic burdens of returning to school have forced some students into impossible situations where they must choose their education over their health. All of these factors only exacerbate the burden that is food insecurity which as many as one in three college students suffer from. Therefore, college campuses across the country must close the gap between their students and achieve food security by committing themselves to long term student aid. Colleges and universities must choose to be a positive influence for their students and respective surrounding communities, instead of a source of socio-economic and physiological turmoil.
According to the 2019 Spring Health Survey, 24 percent of the undergraduates at the University who were surveyed said that they worried “whether my food would run out before I got money to buy more.” The University merely lists ways students can access food resources through the Office of The Dean of Students. However, many of these organizations are student-run and receive outside funding. Currently, organizations at the University and across Charlottesville that service citizens and students facing food insecurity are in need of more funds and donations. This includes the U.Va. Community Food Pantry that services both students and staff specifically, which is funded by Student Council and the U.Va. Parents Fund. Around this time last year, the pantry was forced to shut down when the spring semester was moved online, and thus could not support food insecure students for several months. Today, the pantry faces a new challenge — they need more funding to keep up with increasing demand, as restocking items once a week is no longer sufficient.
As for the greater Charlottesville community, citizens have access to the Loaves and Fishes Food Pantry as well as the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank. Furthermore, organizations such as Cultivate Charlottesville Food Justice Network have committed themselves to advocacy and educating the public on the racial inequities of food justice. The PB&J Fund of Charlottesville similarly seeks to empower and educate the community on proper nutrition and improving access to quality food. These organizations would benefit from more volunteers from the Charlottesville community as well as donations to continue to serve more residents.
As a collective student body we must rally around these groups who are fighting for food equity and justice. Students and citizens can help these organizations through donations and volunteering at the organizations’ discretion, or by educating themselves through courses on food politics or food justice. Some students have even taken it upon themselves to decrease food insecurity through student-run organizations such as FoodAssist, which collects excess dining hall and fraternity food and redistributes it to the Charlottesville community. The University itself — rather than continuing to make lives harder for students through increased tuition and the appeasement of donors in recent years — must do more to be sure it prioritizes the wellbeing of students, faculty and staff.” The University can begin by allocating specific funds for food pantry services on and off Grounds, and strengthening and building community partnerships with the surrounding Charlottesville community.
Yssis Cano-Santiago is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Cavalier Daily. Columns represent the views of the authors alone.