Food Insecurity on Campus: Episode 1

Simmons student, Molly Jean Henebury’s two-part podcast “Food Insecurity on Campus” has been nominated for “Best Podcast” at the 2021 Intercollegiate Broadcasting System Awards.

In this episode, Molly Jean discusses food insecurity at large and on Simmons Campus, including interviews with Katie Shapiro and Corey Zohlman.

Check back to hear the second episode and The Shark’s other IBS nominations. Follow along on Twitter and Instagram (@radiosimmons) and head to our website for a full transcription of the episode.

[intro guitar music]

Molly Jean Voice Over:

You’re sitting in a crowded lecture hall, you’re doing your best to ignore the constant onslaught of notifications from your phone. Your professor is speaking, and you desperately want to listen. But you’re gripping your stomach, it keeps voicing his opinions and an otherwise silent room. You didn’t have a chance to get dinner before this because you’re out of Meal Swipes. Your mind is wandering to when you can eat next. This podcast is going to address an ever growing discussion, food insecurity on college campuses. My name is Molly Jean Henebury. Like Billie Jean, but Molly. I’m a graduating senior at Simmons University in Boston. I study Nutrition and Dietetics and Public Health. Initially, this podcast was being produced in a world where you could still be within six feet of your friends and family. In this first episode, we’ll talk about what food insecurity is and what it looks like on a pre-corona Simmons campus. Next episode, we’ll be talking about the consequences that we’re currently dealing with as students in the hands of Residence Life navigate their new reality. Without further ado, let’s get into it.

The US Drug Administration defines food insecurity as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active healthy life. An addendum to that definition is a lack of appropriate access to food. Because folks might be able to consistently check restaurant dumpsters for their next meal, but that does not mean they’re food secure. Food Security has affected people all over the world for generations. But we’ve only just begun to talk about how it’s impacting college students. In January of 2016, the Atlantic posted an article titled ‘The hidden hunger on college campuses.’ This piece highlighted the disconnect between how we generally think college students treat food and the grim reality for many. College is often associated with eating an excess and the consequential “freshman 15.” This assumption got a reality check with Sara Goldrick-Rab, Professor of Education Policy and Sociology at University of Wisconsin, surveyed 4,000 students at 10 community colleges across the country. Her study suggested that more than half of all community college students struggle with food insecurity. That’s one in two students. Here at Simmons, student Katie Shapiro saw these numbers and became curious if something like that story they were telling could exist at a private university. Katie conducted a research study of Simmons students and their own experience of food insecurity. I sat down with Katie to see what she found.

[Guitar music]

Molly Jean

Thank you so much for coming in, Katie. 

Katie Shapiro

Yeah, thank you for having me

Molly Jean

How are you doing?

Katie Shapiro 

I’m good, how are you?

Molly Jean

I’m good, thank you.

Molly Jean (Voice Over)

Katie and I first discussed how reading that 2016 Atlantic article sparked an interest for her and how she found herself conducting this survey at Simmons. We then got into the findings of that research and what those numbers meant. 

Molly Jean 

In doing that SURPASs project, was there any moment or numbers or stats that really surprised you, or shocked you at all? 

Katie Shapiro

Absolutely, yeah. I think I expected there to be a prevalence, like I knew it existed here, I didn’t realize how prevalent it was, especially around anxieties in acquiring food. I think it was like 85% of our residential students are anxious about being able to afford their next meal. That’s incredibly high, and I, like, really was never expecting it to be so high. And even going down the different like, measures of food insecurity, like, it stays pretty consistently at about 60 or 40% for a lot of that. And for the most extreme forms of food insecurity, like losing weight due to being unable to eat, so like really chronic food insecurity, that’s still about 13% of our students. So I was consistently shocked by how hungry students were and how much they aren’t showing that. Because I had never personally been food insecure, this is something I just kind of stumbled into. So I didn’t realize that people who like we’re in my classes every day we’re not eating-

Molly Jean

Yeah,

Katie Shapiro 

-right next to me

Molly Jean (Voice over)

As a transfer student, this was all news to me too. Upon coming to Simmons, I was shocked to find that students on meal plans were unable to get three meals a day, seven days a week. And that’s something you’ll hear a lot of during this podcast. It’s important because that’s generally how the population eats. Three meals a day, maybe some snacks if you’re feeling spicy. And when you’re a student and your days somehow feel like they’re longer than 24 hours, you really need those three meals to get you through your classes, work, studying and just generally trying to be a functioning member of society. It comes down to having enough metaphorical fuel in the tank.

Katie Shapiro

Yeah, the three meals a day was like a really big thing for people. So, I had a comment section as well, and like, so like hundreds of times people were just like, we need three meals a day, that’s like absolutely a necessity .

Molly Jean 

I think that’s a fair ask. 

(Molly Jean, Katie laugh) 

Katie Shapiro

Yeah. That’s it’s been interesting to hear what administration, like, how they weave away from that. 

Molly Jean 

Yeah, I guess in that, um, there has been the responses, the like, meal swipe transfer and everything- 

Molly Jean (Voice Over)

Real quick, to explain what I’m asking about here, the meal swipe program allows residential students with a meal plan to either donate meals or points to a quote unquote bank. These meals and points can then be used by other residential students who are facing temporary food insecurity. That’s that.

Molly Jean

How do you think that’s combating the issue? Do you think that’s sufficient? Do

you think…

Katie Shapiro

I think it’s a great first step

Molly Jean

Yeah. 

Katie Shapiro

Like, we went from having not a single thing. So for students who are, like, absolutely starving that, like 10% of people, that’s huge to be able to, like, have a meal that’s just like waiting for you. However, I don’t think Simmons does the best job talking about these resources. We’re really ashamed as a University to say that we have food insecure students, and that we’re doing something to attack that problem that you know, the system has created. It’s no one’s, like personal fault. 

Molly Jean

Mmhmm.

Katie Shapiro

But it is created by the system that we, that we have going on here. I, I wish they would be really transparent about it and like, talk about it all the time, you really have to ask them to like find out about it. Or you have to talk to someone like myself or another activist on campus, who really knows the ins and outs of this stuff.

Molly Jean (Voice Over)

After my conversation with Katie, I spoke with Cory Zohlman to look for that after mentioned administrative transparency. Corey is the Assistant Dean of Student Affairs at Simmons. His name is largely the one students see in their Gmail inbox for updates regarding the school’s attempts to combat food insecurity on campus.

Molly Jean

Thank you so much for being here.

Corey Zohlman

Thank you for inviting me to be part of your podcast

Molly Jean

Of course, Yeah. So I guess to start off, I want to ask in your own words, what do you think the issue of food insecurity looks like on Simmons right now?

Corey Zohlman

Um, so, I think in the last several months, we’ve become more aware of what it looks like in two populations, our residential students, but also our commuter students. And I think what really sort of unearthed this and brought awareness in particular to the administration was a student by the name Katie, who made it a part of her SURPASs project, and it definitely kind of raised a lot of eyebrows, where we did not realize to the degree where folks were experiencing food insecurity, both with our current meal plan, but also students who don’t hold a meal plan. So it’s definitely bigger than we thought it would be, but it’s not untenable.

Molly Jean

Mmm, gotcha. So you’re touching upon the fact that we have taken some steps since then-

Corey

Yup.

Molly Jean

– would you explain the initiatives that Simmons has taken so far?

Corey 

Yeah so um, fortunately, we have some things in place, which will likely change next semester to adapt to the need. So right now, for our residential students, we have a meal plan, exchange-

[music]

Molly Jean (Voice Over)

Okay, sorry, pause. It’s at this point that I should tell you, this is also something Katie and I discussed, students have some concerns with this meal swipe exchange program. Specifically, the worry is that students struggling with eating disorders might donate swipes, and it will seem as though they’re using them. Katie and I also talked about how current meal plans already lend themselves to eating disorders. Not being able to eat three meals a day, seven days a week is pretty conducive to destructive behavior. Alright. With that, back to the interview. 

[music fade out] 

Corey Zohlman 

– we have for our commuter students, a plan for emergency meals, which are supposed to be for episodic instances, such as your employer didn’t pay you, maybe you had to buy a book that you weren’t expecting to buy so now you can’t afford groceries and that has been widely utilized. In the spring, we’re going to have the trustees market, which helps with providing nutritious fruits and vegetables, which is part of food insecurity, not having access to those things and so that will be on campus. And we’ll be distributing vouchers to students. It’ll be limited at first, so we can gauge the use, but that will be available to students. And last but not least, something that we piloted with a small group of students and we’re going to roll out broader in the fall is allowing students who might not have the ability to pay for a meal plan through Aramark upfront to add it to their bill, their tuition bill, and then it gives them the opportunity to possibly pay for over three to four months um because sometimes students just don’t have the money to pay 5, 6, 700 dollars upfront and over several months of paying off, it might make it more affordable.

[music fade in]

Molly Jean (Voice Over)

As you might remember, from just a few minutes ago, Katie and I talked about the effectiveness of these interventions. And while it’s good steps are being taken, they really are band aids on a balloon that’s revealing new holes every day. That’s not to say that these are bad ideas, but again, students still can’t get three meals a day, seven days a week. That’s why some students are saying a total overhaul is needed. Start from scratch. I proposed this idea to Cory

[music fade out]

Molly Jean 

There’s been changes made to fix what’s wrong, but I think some folks are thinking more the whole infrastructure needs changing rather than band aids.

Corey 

Yeah, so I um, I can speak very limitedly to the, to this. But in an email, in the Campus Life newsletter, several months ago, Joan Martinez, who is a AVP for administration, I myself penned a small letter to the student body sharing that we are going out for an RFP for our dining contract.

[music fade in]

Molly Jean

So there were some acronyms just there. Joan Martinez being the AVP means he is the Assistant Vice President, he is specifically the Assistant Vice President of the University Real Estate Development and Facilities Management. The term RFP stands for request for proposal, Simmons sent this request to dining service vendors to identify a partner to collaborate with for a new dining center on campus, food services can then submit their proposals, or bids, to seventh for deliberation. Okay, that’s it.

Corey 

So that’s a way that we can help change the system. So if there’s issues with the residential meal plan, or the commuter meal plan, that’s a way to, you know, rip off the band aid and actually revisit the structure of what we’re offering and how we’re able to offer it. So that’s, again, one of the ways we’re thinking about using the information that we have based on whose access some of these services or safety nets to see how we can broaden it and make it more readily available based on now that we know the who and some of the circumstances. So we will re explore a food pantry to see if that might meet need. So yeah.

Molly Jean 

 Yeah. I think it’s definitely, it’s a new area of private universities exploring this issue. I think it’s been rather under the table, kept quiet for so long, and so I think it’s a new area. So I applaud you and your efforts and everything.

Corey

Oh no, and I mean, honestly,  I’m sorry, that we were so unaware, so thank you. 

Molly Jean

Yeah. 

Corey

And we are trying to evolve the system into something that meets most of the need of folks to the best of our ability.

Molly Jea

Corey also spoke on his gratitude for the HR department at Simmons and their collaborative efforts in these interventions. He welcomed any and all ideas for moving forward, as well as other partnerships between departments. So that was food insecurity on Simmons campus before the world became the garbage can on fire we know it to be right now. Next episode, I’ll be speaking with a Simmons student being put up in Boston hotels by Residence Life. We talk about what meals are like for students there, but also what it’s like to be a student there.

Clip of Unknown Speaker 

like I wasn’t really aware of what was going on because I was still like, freaking out, sitting in my dorm, you know, panicking. And then I get a call for a phone from student life being like, hey, so as you know, the dining services are canceled, and I was like, oh, I didn’t know that. Cool.

Molly Jean Voice Over

Thank you all so very much for listening. I hope you tune in to the next one. This podcast was produced and written by yours truly. edits and instruction were provided by Erica Moura at the Simmons Communications Department. Music for this podcast was produced by Conor O’Brian.

[Music Fade out]