What's for dinner?

What’s for dinner?

Recent months have brought low-income students’ straits to the attention of the greater campus and administration. Bwog Editor in Chief Taylor Grasdalen reports on the issue of food accessibility and what Columbia University students are doing to fix it.

Two weeks ago, the Columbia First-Generation Low-Income Partnership (FLIP) launched a campaign to promote their “Microfund,” intended to assist Columbia students with the costs of meeting relatively everyday needs. The “microgrants” indeed start small: a meal ($10), cold medicine ($15), and psychiatric care copay ($20); larger donations can afford students a week of groceries ($50), their cap and gown ($55), winter clothing ($100), or a visit to the emergency room ($250). As of today, $3,560 has been raised — surpassing the original $2,500 goal — and will begin to be granted on the basis of applications come fall 2015.

FLIP was founded only this past fall 2014, the product of many cross-University students’ shared concerns about the status and understanding — or lack thereof — they received from Columbia. Toni Airaksinen, BC ’18, and Maureen Lei, CC ’15 (though a junior graduating a year early), tell me that there exist “significant constituencies of low-income and first-generation students” presently underserved by the University. Not only is there a vastly “assumed financial ability,” but plenty of “assumed privilege.” These assumptions tax those FLIP seeks to represent, and this has played out popularly on their Columbia University Class Confessions Facebook page, where students submit anonymous confessions detailing their financial and social burdens.

“This isn’t normal,” Maureen says. She and Toni break down just how not-normal Columbia is with its (assumed) commonplace wealth and attitudes: most people in the United States are not of this stratum, do not have hundreds of dollars to spend on clothes and coffees and dinner, do not have a few thousand to spend on “travel.” Toni relays a story about one friend this fall who refused to believe that Toni couldn’t afford to take a quick vacation to Washington, D.C.; the friendship deteriorated with the onslaught of socioeconomic division between them. Maureen, unlike Toni, is not considered a low-income student and is not the first in her family to attend college, but relates instead to the cultural isolation many students feel, an isolation she sees as intersecting with FLIP and its goals. She is the daughter of Chinese parents, whom she describes as “social climbers,” highly educated yet thoroughly traditional; Maureen’s first language is not English, and she shares anecdotes about growing up with non-western eating utensils and not knowing “the difference between a cheeseburger and a hamburger.”

Where culture (whether that means first-generation or family background) and cost collide most is not even within the big Columbia system, but socially and in the classroom. FLIP offers a resource of textbooks available online, though “assumptions of experience” — Maureen’s words — get in the way of learning as much as inability to buy a text for class.

The Confessions page yields stories that would otherwise go unheard. One posted on April 20th shares:

I went to Barnard Financial Aid and asked for help. I am working two jobs, donated my eggs three times, and I work as an escort and I’m at the end of my rope trying to make ends meet. I told the financial aid officer about the two jobs and egg donations, not about my working as an escort (out of embarrassment? fear of being reported?). The financial aid officer jokingly replied “Wow, it seems like you’re doing all you can besides prostitution!” I felt so alone. If only she knew…

When food availability is a source of stress, as well, it can prove to be a divide even amongst roommates. Another confession reads:

My roommate is always buying groceries and cooking these big meals for herself. She lets the food go bad because she has so much of it, and then she just throws it out. I don’t have enough food to keep from feeling hungry all the time, and she pays for so many things she doesn’t even need. Not just food but clothes and superfluities I would never dream of spending money on – not because they’re not useful but because I could never justify it. She doesn’t even have a job.

This problem is one that FLIP has begun to address with another new program called CU Meal Share. Students with extra meals from their dining plan volunteer their swipes into Columbia dining halls, or literally “share” part of their meal. In one example from Toni: she’s swiped into Ferris Booth, eaten, and then brought out to-go containers of food for others. Another confession imparts the effectiveness of just this student-to-student sharing:

I swiped in a couple of people today off of CU Meal Share because I always have a plethora of swipes that I never use. They messaged me a few minutes later basically thanking me for giving them what will be their only meal for the day. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so many things at once in my entire life. I take so many things in my life for granted, like extra spending money and extra meal swipes. But if I can offer help and make anyone’s life a little easier, that’s all I really need.

However impactful CU Meal Share becomes, it does not solve the real problem. Columbia students cannot necessarily afford to eat at Columbia. I spoke with Columbia Dining in researching food on campus, after reading on their website about their composting and community initiatives. Their composting program is admirable as they work with EcoReps and GreenBorough, and began in 2012. Columbia Dining “[supports] the local community,” though that work is oriented off campus. According to Kristina Hernandez, Director of Marketing and Communications for Campus Services, “The department donates unserved surplus food and equipment to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and Broadway Community Service Pantry.” They donate some 100 pounds per week of food to area churches. Ms. Hernandez adds, “Columbia Dining also works with the Columbia’s Community Impact Food Pantry and has a relationship with Yes Solutions.” With Community Impact, according to the Dining site: volunteers cook each Friday a meal “for about 100 homeless and low-income guests. Columbia Dining donates packaged foods so that guests may choose items to take with them.”

"Need some lunch inspiration? Try the shrimp scampi over linguine at John Jay!" Photo via Columbia Dining Facebook page.

“Need some lunch inspiration? Try the shrimp scampi over linguine at John Jay!” Photo via Columbia Dining Facebook page.

Just as with their environmental practice, this sounds optimistic. Regarding the work of students and efforts like CU Meal Share, Ms. Hernandez says, “We’re glad to see the student community identify ways to help one another, like the meal share. Our department will support efforts lead by our partners in the schools as the issue is more broadly addressed.” All of Columbia’s “unserved leftovers are donated to one of 3 local food pantries near campus,” however, rather than — perhaps — to students. Are leftovers best sent to these pantries, or might Columbia be better served?

Sejal Singh, CC ’15, present Vice President of Policy for the Columbia Student Council and former President of the Columbia University Democrats, says that students will only feel more confident in their studies and community once the burden of food security is lessened. “I’m a senior and thinking back on the last four years, many of my friends have experienced food insecurity and many of them have been unable to get a meal or get a meal swipe at some point in their college career. Some people do experience that in the long term, and others it due to short-term crisis: they have a late paycheck, they have a medical expense they didn’t anticipate, or they have to buy a textbook, or they have to send money home without having budgeted for it. You know, these crises arise and then suddenly they’re in a position where they don’t have any money to pay for food.”

She shares a proposal written with incumbent CCSC VP of Communications Abby Porter, the goal of which will be to address short-term food insecurity via University means. A student would meet with a financial aid officer to discuss his or her individual case, to be granted a “limited amount” of dining hall meals and then given information on within- and outside-Columbia resources to meet long-term needs. The “two-fold benefit,” here, according to Sejal, is that students’ insecurities can be met by Columbia’s own resources before they seek outside assistance (programs like FLIP included), and then provided with a way to proceed.

“This is an institution with billions of dollars in our endowment,” Sejal continues. “I think it’s absurd that we can’t make sure our students are fed. They need that to be able to study and participate in co-curricular activities and take advantage of the Columbia community.”

Featured image via Shutterstock.