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Mobilizing an immediate response to campus food insecurity

Last week, The Daily profiled two graduate students navigating the challenges of unaffordable housing, food, childcare and healthcare costs in the Bay Area. Rising expenses and inadequate salaries leave many graduate students, especially international students who have limited employment options and students with dependent children, vulnerable to economic hardship. Stanford is making some progress on housing insecurity with the expansion of Escondido Village, which will add 2,000 residences and allow for Stanford to house 75 percent of its graduate students on campus in 2020. A “Notes from the Quad” post published in March also pointed to policy changes that will improve the “culture of graduate advising.” The post also highlighted the ongoing work of the Affordability Task Force and affirmed a commitment to student input in these initiatives. But these reforms, although crucial, will not provide immediate relief for the students in last week’s Daily profile series and their peers who face similar struggles. While we await the completion of construction projects and the convening of task forces, we must pursue short-term responses.

Food insecurity is a common thread throughout the graduate student stories highlighted in The Daily, and it affects undergraduates as well. As demonstrated in a recent Government Accountability Office report, campus food insecurity is a pervasive national problem that demands a coordinated response among the federal government, state agencies and universities. Last year, the state of California granted $2.5 million to each of the statewide public higher education systems–the University of California, California State University and California Community College Systems–to develop student meal credit sharing systems, create campus food pantries and hire employees to assist students with enrollment in CalFresh benefits. New Jersey passed similar legislation two weeks ago. Following the lead of state governments, the Stanford student body should step up, offer immediate support and push for institutional reforms that treat campus food insecurity with the urgency that it demands.

My friend Grace Achepohl wrote an excellent piece in The Stanford Review calling for a campus meal swipe-sharing program, which would allow students to donate unused meal swipes to their peers. A national organization called Swipe Out Hunger operates similar programs at 75 colleges throughout the country—including UC Berkeley, Penn, Northwestern and Columbia. Swipe Out Hunger is a common-sense measure that comes at minimal cost, resolves an allocative inefficiency and reduces food waste. We ought to move toward implementing it at Stanford as soon as possible.

Co-ops and self-ops, which cook and serve communal meals for large groups of people, can also do more to support food-insecure students. Some Row houses have Eating Associates, or non-residents that pay quarterly dues to eat at the house for a specified number of weekly meals. Houses that frequently find themselves with leftovers should specifically recruit Eating Associates from sectors of the graduate student population that are most affected by the affordability crisis, and offer generous financial aid or free participation in the program. Involvement in Eating Associate programs could also build community between undergraduate and graduate students. In addition, on Sunday evenings, most Row houses clean out all of the previous week’s leftovers from their kitchens. Before dumping everything straight from the refrigerator to the compost, each house could create a list of their leftover food items, publish it on an email list or Facebook group and designate a food pickup timeframe. Sunday evening’s leftovers might not be the most glamorous items on the menu, but there is no reason why they should go to waste without giving others the chance to take them home.

As the end of spring quarter approaches, many students will start to realize that they still have a stockpile of meal plan dollars that won’t roll over to fall quarter. The Haas Center, ASSU Exec or the Graduate Life Office should coordinate a food drive, which would benefit students at risk of food insecurity who are living on campus for the summer. Rather than eating as many extravagant TAP meals as possible, students should consider buying groceries at Munger and donating to this hypothetical food drive. Stanford should also consider establishing a permanent on-campus food pantry or partnership with a local food bank; according to remarks made at a recent Graduate Student Council meeting, Stanford is the only university in the Bay Area that does not receive food bank services.

In the long run, Stanford must investigate the deep distributive injustices that force some students to scavenge for lunch in fruit trees while others enjoy free trips to Disneyland and Tahoe. As a Row house resident, I am struggling to reconcile my comfortable life and close-knit community with the stories of malnutrition, homelessness and isolation that graduate students have so bravely shared in this publication. Voluntary contributions and community meals will not make up for this inequity, nor will they dismantle the root causes of the graduate student affordability crisis, but they will help to relieve a fraction of the burden that food-insecure community members face. Mobilizing the Stanford student body around efficient, common-sense responses to food insecurity will provide tangible support for struggling students, generate momentum and highlight the need for further institutional action.

Contact Courtney Cooperman at ccoop20 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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