Updated: Feb. 18, 2016 at 11:38 p.m.
Although she is now on a food stamp program, Jess Silfa, a senior at the School of General Studies, board member of Columbia First-Generation Low-Income Partnership, and co-chair of its food insecurity committee, remembers a time when food was harder to come by.
“I couldn’t afford rent, so trying to pay for my own meals was always a difficulty. I’d always feel guilty, like I couldn’t spare the money,” she explains. Finding the money to purchase food, for General Studies students who go without, is often a matter of triaging basic human needs: deciding between which fundamental drive that food-insecure person has to neglect or ignore to resolve their present emergency.
Food insecurity at GS is a serious problem—in September 2015, GS students comprised the majority of Emergency Meal Fund users—and the GS experience of food insecurity is a peculiar and painful struggle. Members of the nontraditional GS student population, with an average age of 28, go hungry as the dual responsibilities of eating and of studying as adults sometimes conflict.
Anna Demidova, another senior at GS, highlights food as the unfortunate collateral damage in a clash of financial priorities. She was heavily committed to long-term obligations—her college education, her apartment—so it was easiest to deny herself the sustenance she needed on a day-to-day basis. Demidova essentially just planned not to eat.
“All my savings, everything I had in the bank, went towards the tuition. So the money that I was essentially able to make from my part-time jobs went to pay for rent. And food was the last expense that was in my mind or even in my budget,” she says.
Dealing with food insecurity permeates every aspect of life for students like Silfa and Demidova. The associated hunger—being perpetually distracted by how much her body was telling her she needed food—derailed her focus on her role as a student.
“We’re constantly told if you get good grades, you’ll get more scholarship money, right? and you’ll get more aid. But it’s so hard to focus on school when you’re hungry. When you’re constantly thinking, ‘Oh crap, I didn’t pay rent this month,’” Silfa says.
To Silfa, then, it’s no surprise that getting approved for food stamps has corresponded with better academic results. The imprint of food insecurity previously etched into her transcript was beginning to disappear. “Suddenly I’m making dean’s list! Gee, I wonder why?” she asks. “It’s because I’m able to concentrate on classes for the first time in my four years here.”
Demidova says that having food insecurity limit her academic career at Columbia was a relentless source of guilt over grades, which she now understands weren’t her fault. Not having enough to eat had disturbing consequences for her state of mind.
“In some fields I wasn’t performing as well as I wanted to. And I would blame it on myself,” she recalls. “But, looking back, I just didn’t really have the right emotional, psychological condition to be performing well just because there was so much going on. I don't even know why I didn’t drop out.”
It is clear from these GS students’ stories, however, that these academic difficulties were not the isolated symptoms of hunger—in fact, they were inextricable from their mental and physical well-being, which are also greatly affected by their food insecurity.
Demidova says that her food insecurity exacted a drastic toll on her body. “I actually lost a lot of weight. I think I lost over 10 pounds. And then the summer came so I had the same situation going on over the summer,” she explains. “My sister came to visit me, and she said I should stop losing weight because it was getting not healthy at that point.”
For Silfa, the negative impacts on her body resulted from the foods she was forced to turn to in lieu of proper meals. “I think it’s [about] not getting good food. Because I did always find something to eat, but it would be like a bag of chips. Or a bag of cookies. Stuff that was not nourishing for my brain. And then I would have that sugar crash, you know, like when you eat candy and then, ‘Oh, I have not had a vegetable today,’” she laughs.
“When I wasn’t getting that good food, it definitely affected my mood, it affected my concentration, it affected how well I was getting that paragraph I’m reading. I’d always have brain fog, because I’d just want to sleep because I just had a candy bar,” Silfa explains.
Alleviating the pangs of hunger often means either fastidiously watching for chances to get free food, or subsisting on whatever students can afford or scrounge.
Demidova describes her constant alertness toward the free food opportunities on campus. Students in her situation often have to pay attention for any chance to alleviate the pressure on their budgets and bodies. “I kind of keep an eye on the events that are happening on campus that I would go to. People invite me to a lot of stuff. That’s how you kind of look for food,” she explains.
When her food insecurity was most severe, Demidova sometimes had to compromise her basic standards of food quality to get the calories she needed. She says that she “survived on Cheerios that semester. … [It] was like dog food to me.”
In the last year, institutional responses to the problem of food insecurity have emerged on campus. According to GS senior Elizabeth Heyman, student body president of General Studies Student Council, this issue is the council’s biggest priority this year because of the scale of the problem and the fledgling state of programs to address hunger on campus.
“I think for GS, food insecurity is the biggest thing that we’re working on, because it’s one of the biggest problems that we've seen face campus this year, this past year. I can’t even believe that it hasn’t been talked about until this past couple of years,” Heyman says with exasperation.
GSSC has worked closely with the other student councils as well as FLIP in getting the administration to pay attention to the issue. FLIP in particular has spearheaded the issue through the work done by its food insecurity committee.
The committee has played a key role in the establishment of the Emergency Meal Fund. “The EMF … is the program where any Columbia student can get six free meal vouchers to use in the dining halls, no questions asked. You just show up and request them and get them in an envelope,” Silfa explains.
The EMF has been a welcome measure. Silfa describes the security it provides for her. “I used the EMF fund last semester. And it was great to have days where, OK, I couldn’t get swiped in, or maybe my food stamps ran out a little early, and it was great to have those six tickets I could use, and at least have one good meal that day,” she says.
But the EMF is still only in the middle of its development. What started off as an initiative surviving only on guest swipe donations eventually became a project funded entirely by the school. And now, further changes are under way in developing an institutional response to alleviate food insecurity for GS students like Silfa and Demidova.
Heyman says that one proposal under discussion by the GS Dean of Students Tom Harford and Vice President for Campus Services Scott Wright aims to develop a thoroughly resourced institutional response to GS food insecurity.
“They basically came up with this plan that instead of an Emergency Meal Fund, GS is going to have a whole storage of these meals that any student can go to Student Life, peer advisors, the dean’s office, financial aid and say, 'Hey, I'm struggling. I need some help getting food this week, can I have some of those meal vouchers?'” she explains. This plan hopes to be a more sustained, lasting measure as these various resources work with the individual students.
Another endeavour of FLIP’s food insecurity committee is the Facebook group CU Meal Share. The page serves as a hub for students both able to and in need of help sourcing food. Swipes are requested, swipes are shared, and the locations of the campus’ never-ending barrage of free food events are triumphantly disclosed. The group’s description lists its aim to become a “healthy, unstigmatized way to just help each other out.”
Silfa says that CU Meal Share is limited by its reliance on human response times that are sometimes too slow. “I think the failure is that of course since it’s a group, some of these requests may not be answered in time, because you’re not constantly on your phone. It’s hard to know if someone wants to get in and you can let them in,” she says.
Criticism like this is why, for some, the phone app Swipes is a somewhat more convenient way to achieve the same aims.
But the app is also not without criticism. “I’m very disappointed in the way FLIP has handled the app idea [Swipes],” Demidova laments. “The way they tried to promote it … either saying that they’re not here to solve food insecurity on campus but then at the same time … not admitting that it’s not working and not being critical to look for changes … to advance the situation.”
Being food insecure at GS is frequently accompanied by a range of stressors and structural disadvantages, all of which work together in shaping an individual’s Columbia experience. Silfa is disabled, which she says means she needs to live close to campus and consequently pay higher rent than is available in other areas of Morningside Heights, while Demidova is a first-generation college student.
Demidova emphasizes the isolation that first-generation, lower-income students experience at Columbia. She recounts how a professor once told her that she can see the effects of income inequality manifesting themselves in the classroom—the systematic expression of a wealth divide that was acutely realized in Demidova’s individual food insecurity.
“Last year, when I’m teaching first-years, I see that separation of them—people who went to very privileged schools and people who went to public schools. And I can see how, as the semester progresses, they separate themselves more and more. Which is so sad, because that’s not the purpose of education,” Demidova says, paraphrasing her professor.
Silfa says that awareness of wealth inequality pervades the Columbia experience for the food insecure. “It can be a little embarrassing to go to an event with Tupperware and take food, even if you’re thinking, this could be my dinner for the next two days. It’s not a common sight for most students at Columbia, given that this is such a wealthy institution,” she says.
Demidova explains how socioeconomic differences on campus are isolating; she thinks Columbia needs to be more inclusive. Wealth inequality creates a status quo that starts with food insecurity and that expands to alienate other marginalized identities.
“Yeah, I think it’s a very taboo topic. People don't want to talk about [it],” she says. Demidova places some blame for her feeling of isolation on the University as a whole. “They could look into that and just make sure those identities don’t make people feel alienated. But rather they feel supported and they feel their identity matters. And is welcome here.”
Silfa also believes that food insecurity is just one of many issues of inequality that need to be addressed on campus.
“If you’re food insecure, chances are you’re lower income, or there’s something else going on there. And I think that does play a huge role at Columbia.” Silfa explains. “It’s all intersectional.