Triumphs, Struggles, And Direction Of Columbia Food Insecurity Initiatives
Written by Ross Chapman
Yesterday, CCSC, in collaboration with ESC, GSSC, FLIP, and the administration, as well as a team of independent app designers, took strides to fix the issue of food insecurity on campus by announcing several new programs. Columbia College’s student council, along with those from Engineering and General Studies, unveiled the Emergency Meal Fund, a student-provided bank of guest meal swipes available for emergency situations. In an exclusive interview, Bwog was also informed of a partnership with Swipes, an unaffiliated app run by a team of four Columbia undergrads, which will use location services to match students with meals to give and the students who need them.
These initiatives won’t increase the total amount of food available to Columbia as a whole, but hope to mitigate food insecurity through improved food distribution. We sat down with CCSC President Ben Makansi and Vice President of Policy Viv Ramakrishnan to discuss the purpose and development of Swipes and the Emergency Meal Fund.
These programs should be able to provide short term relief for low-income students. Swipes, if properly advertised and used, could be a more efficient analog to CU Meal Share, increasing the student body’s ability as a whole to share swipes. And the emergency meal fund, if it raises enough guest swipes, will be able to provide for up to 830 students’ emergency situations per semester. But while this is a victory, these initiatives will not assist low-income students with more chronic food insecurity.
Students without sure access to meals each day are dramatically disadvantaged at Columbia. In the short term, unbalanced or insufficient meals will hinder ability in the workspace and the classroom. Columbia’s Get Balanced! Guide for Healthier Eating states, “What we choose to put into our bodies will greatly influence the way we feel, our mood and energy levels, how we perform mentally in school and work.” In the long term, food availability and habits can contribute to lifelong diseases and conditions.
Those who want free access to Columbia’s dining halls currently have to wait for and rely on the charity of other students. For many, this process is stressful, embarrassing, or shameful. Meal sharing also reduces the agency of low-income students when it comes to where, when, and with whom to eat, which often comes into conflict with the busy schedules Columbia’s atmosphere creates for its students. While the Emergency Meal Fund will, a few times per semester, allow students to avoid the in-person meal sharing process, swipe access as a whole will still depend on others, just as it did last semester.
Income inequality- and the students it affects- have long been all but invisible on campus. Conversation about money on tends to alienate low-income students, and the lack of perceived safe spaces to talk about financial issues keeps many students’ struggles hidden from the university community and the world at large. “Columbia University does not always offer the appropriate safe spaces or platforms for students to talk about issues that pertain to them,” FLIP warns on their Facebook page.
Columbia First-Generation, Low-Income Partnership (FLIP) has done much since its inception to increase the visibility of the problems its students face. One of FLIP’s more widely seen projects, Columbia University Class Confessions, accepts only anonymous submissions, precisely because non-academic discussions on money carry too many social risks. “I hate telling people about my struggles,” says one poster to the Tumblr and Facebook group. “I wouldn’t even be using this if it wasn’t anonymous. People look at you differently when they know you’re poor.” This desire for anonymity drove the implementation of the Emergency Meal Fund towards nondescript meal vouchers.
Columbia already offers meal vouchers to a variety of dining hall-goers, like briefly visiting students. Students using the EMF can hand their vouchers to dining employees out-of-pocket, without creating any extra hassle or embarrassment which might come from a more complicated UNI-based system. CCSC wants the vouchers to be easy and nondescript to obtain. Students who need to use the EMF can go to JJ’s Place and ask to see the manager on duty. (JJ’s was chosen because of its office space and accessibility for GS students without access to Dining offices in Wallach. EMF vouchers will be accepted at all Columbia dining halls.) Cashiers, CCSC encourages, have been instructed not to ask why students want to talk to the manager. In the privacy of the downstairs office, students can show their ID, state their UNI and school affiliation, and receive the vouchers, no questions asked.
Once these programs roll out, we’ll see how anonymous they really are. Right now, most students in line at JJ’s don’t ask to see the manager, and meal vouchers are rarely spotted on an average dining hall day. Hopefully, the implementation of EMF won’t cause murmurs further back in the lines and anonymity will be mostly maintained.
The prospective anonymity, ease, and low stress of this no-questions policy rose questions about the possibility of free riders on all of the new food insecurity initiatives. CU Meal Share, Swipes, and the EMF do not currently require any proof of student need. Demanding proof of meal plan exhaustion would have been harder to implement, and it would have been more stressful on low-income students. These programs rely on students providing what they can and taking what they need. Usage data provided by Swipes and Dining should help diagnose after a semester whether or not additional screening is necessary for these initiatives.
FLIP does not formally collect any data from CU Meal Share or the Class Confessions page. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that GS students have had the biggest need for additional meal swipes out of the three undergraduate schools supported by these programs. Many GS students commute, and the age gap and higher level of independence that contribute to the GS lifestyle deter most from buying meal plans. In fact, last semester, only 17 GS students were enrolled in a meal plan. But a GS schedule can keep students on campus during meal hours, and the cost of Columbia impacts every member of the community. If these programs end up largely benefitting only one undergraduate school, it may fall more into the hands of its respective student council to take the lead on these initiatives.
Barnard students are currently unaffected by any of the new measures rolled out by the other three undergraduate schools. Because Barnard has a different dining office, its students cannot make use of the Emergency Meal Fund. And because of coding complications presented by Barnard students being unable to swipe others into Columbia dining, they cannot currently sign up for Swipes. (This is set to be fixed in an update later this semester.) Barnard students still have access to CU Meal Share, which will stay active for students without smartphones or login credentials for Swipes.
Disappointingly, Columbia and its community have yet to hammer out better long-term, systemic solutions to the problem of food insecurity. The two truly new programs, Swipes and the EMF, do not give students a sufficient way to support themselves over the course of a semester. The Emergency Meal Fund is meant for just that – emergencies. It’s designed to be able to hold over students until their emergency ends, their next paycheck arrives, or their financial aid advisor is able to provide additional services. It’s a welcome cushion for low-income students, but it can’t provide a strong foundation. And Swipes and CU Meal Share leave students depending on the immediate availability of other people with meal plans, which lowers the independence and agency of low-income students.
The truth is, there might be enough meal swipes to go around to all of the undergraduates who need them, but they won’t be available, at least not during this semester. The EMF pilot program is capped at somewhat arbitrary numbers – 6 vouchers per student, 5,000 guest swipes per semester. The 6 per student figure is experimental, and it’s meant to help in emergencies while not becoming too attractive to free riders and those with more security in their meals. Depending on results from this semester, that number could vary a lot. However, 5,000 was a cap set by Dining. Meal plans are designed with the understanding that many swipes will go unused – about 50% of all guest swipes expire without being of service to anyone. So the price students on meal plans pay per swipe is actually lower than the operating cost of dining halls, with the difference largely made up by unused guest swipes, plus a huge sum of freshman meals that expire at the end of each week. The 5,000 meal limit on the EMF is designed to allow students to donate swipes without causing huge, counterintuitive inflation in the price of a Columbia meal plan.
The success of these programs depends all too heavily on the participation and charity of students with meal plans. Until the student councils and the university can create more comprehensive food insecurity plans with greater involvement from Financial Aid and dining, these new initiatives are what we have to work with. We urge you to consider how your available guest swipes could be best used for you and Columbia as a whole. When Swipes becomes available for download and tabling for EMF donation begins, be aware of how you can have an affect on the food insecurity of your friends and peers.
Edit, 8:23 p.m.: This article originally omitted FLIP from the list of partnering organizations which put together these initiatives. It also stated that Swipes was run by one student as opposed to four. Bwog apologizes for these errors.
Meal vouchers via CU Meal Share