News | Student Life

General Studies students demonstrate unprecedented level of food insecurity

Saddled with numerous costs and comparatively low financial aid, nontraditional students in the School of General Studies are far more likely to use emergency food resources than their peers in Columbia College and the School of Engineering and Applied Science.

The student push to combat food insecurity—led by a partnership between all three of Columbia’s undergraduate councils and the First Generation Low Income Partnership—has been largely unified across undergraduate schools in recent years, with student leadership across all schools identifying a need for comprehensive emergency food resources. But available data shows that food insecurity for GS students is more urgent than that for traditional undergraduates. Because GS food insecurity stems from different causes than in CC and SEAS, according to students and deans, GS students have not been as able to fully benefit from cross-school initiatives.

In one reflection of the food insecurity disparity between GS and other schools, the Emergency Meal Fund—a resource subsidized by Campus Services that provides up to six free meals to students per semester and is heralded by councils as the primary resource for food-insecure students—is used disproportionately by GS students.

GS students requested 67 percent of EMF meals used last fall and 49 percent of meals last spring, despite the fact that GS comprises approximately 2,000 students to CC’s and SEAS’ combined 6,000. Those from GS who requested meal swipes through the fund also used more of those swipes than CC and SEAS claimants combined last year, according to data provided by the three undergraduate colleges.

Compounding this need, just 189 students—less than 10 percent of GS—are enrolled in a dining plan, according to a Campus Services spokesperson. According to GS deans and students, obligations drawing GS students away from campus and the mere cost of dining plans serve to disincentivize enrolling in a meal plan.

The unique manifestation of food insecurity for GS students has led to rifts within student-driven initiatives. Although it was initially touted by the FLIP-councils task force as the best resource for food insecure students last year—and has once again garnered support from that task force—the meal-sharing app Swipes was later criticized by GSSC for failing to adequately support food-insecure GS students.

“Anything that's done in the name of food insecurity often fails to account for how it will work in practice for GS students,” Chris Sinclair, GS ’17, said. “I was telling GS students about that app [last year], and they were the ones most disproportionately affected by the fact that it wasn't working. Same thing goes for any type of food insecurity initiative.”

In an effort to support this outsize need, GS administrators are now spearheading food resources that specifically target GS students, including distributing meal vouchers for the restaurant Dig Inn and establishing a new GS-specific educational assistance stipend.

“GS students are more likely to be here without the support of their parents or family, which means that they’re more likely to end up food insecure. There’s less of an economic safety net for many of them,” GS Senior Assistant Dean of Students Josh Edwin said. “They’re also more likely to have other mouths to feed ... The budget week to week, month to month can be a little bit more strict.”

While the full effect of these initiatives has yet to be seen, funding remains an overarching problem for providing aid to GS students. Unlike the Office of Financial Aid, which provides need-based grants to CC and SEAS students, the GS Office of Educational Financing cannot meet students’ demonstrated need, providing only merit-based scholarships instead. This is because GS has a relatively small endowment, according to GS Dean of Students Tom Harford.

“The expenses of juggling living in an expensive city and paying high tuition and balancing work, school, and life pose a balancing act that can, due to unforeseen circumstances, get upset,” Harford said. “The GS endowment is not of a size that we can guarantee students that are high-need that we’re able to meet their tuition and extra financial needs.”

Non-tuition expenses for GS students can include rent, a daily commute, and support for family members—none of which CC and SEAS students typically encounter. These costs, paired with low financial support from the University, exacerbate food insecurity.

“Because we have to budget for more things than students at other schools, the thing that often gets lost is food, groceries. We don't have the same access to resources to be able to budget for those types of things,” Sinclair said. “So food insecurity manifests itself in a way that, it's not just I can't get into a dining hall or I can't buy groceries, it's that I don't know where my next meal's coming from.”

Since GS students do not receive financial aid grants that cover food as part of a greater cost of attendance, they are far less likely to enroll in meal plans than other undergraduates. And unlike CC and SEAS students, they are not required to use meal plans as first-years.

“Some people are commuting. Some people are parents. Some people work while they go to school here. That diverse nature of backgrounds and experiences and life circumstances also affects whether or not they can take time to go to a dining hall and get a meal, because maybe I have to go home and babysit my kids,” Sinclair said. “And the reason why GS students, for the most part, don't have meal plans is because we can't afford it.”

In addition to driving up the demand for extra meal swipes within the GS population, the low use of dining plans means certain measures to combat food insecurity are less effective for GS students. Campus Services’ decision last spring to keep dining halls open during breaks—although met with gratitude from many food-insecure students—was less beneficial to GS students.

While EMF usage indicates that GS students demonstrate a higher need for food resources than students of other schools, these numbers may be further driven up by the fact that the GS students are simply more attuned to seek out resources and less discouraged by any stigma surrounding financial struggles.

“They [GS students] are just not in a place in their life where it’s embarrassing to use the Emergency Meal Fund,” University Senator Ramond Curtis, GS ’19, said. “Many of the students have dealt with it all their lives. That’s the thing about GS—students have these colorful backgrounds of all different types.”

Harford said that, in addition to the lack of stigma surrounding the pursuit of food insecurity resources at GS, students are actively encouraged to secure food resources by their academic advisors, who are instructed to monitor both academic and financial needs of students.

“This is behavior we encourage. If you’re not food insecure but you’re planning ahead and you realize that you have a rough semester ahead of you with balancing your income ... we’d rather someone bank those meals away,” Harford said. “Programmatically, we’re looking at things to prevent the student getting to that point [of severe food insecurity] in the first place.”

The struggle to fully address food insecurity among GS students is heightened by the sheer diversity of needs and financial situations across the school’s student body. To attempt to better understand this range, GS administrators have assembled a student-guided food insecurity advisory board aimed at increasing visibility.

“Food insecurity has so many faces. There seem to be even a broader range of food insecurity amongst GS students, but somebody has to be the first to raise their hand and say, ‘This is what I’m going through,’” advisory board member Amelia Colban, GS ’19, said. “That’s how everything else has gone so far in the first-generation, low-income students movement.” | @AaronPHolmes


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