In a recent myBinghamton Weekly Poll, approximately 1,800 students, or 42 percent of those who answered, reported that they went hungry at least once in the last 30 days because they could not afford to pay for food.
This is not inconsistent with assessments of food insecurity across colleges in the United States; multiple polls indicate about 50 percent of college students are food insecure. Food insecurity is defined as “a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food” by the United States Department of Agriculture.
These polls have been called into question because of discrepancies in their outcomes, which reportedly vary from as low as 9 percent to as high as 75 percent; however, while the exact percentage of food insecure students may be indeterminate, experts do not dispute that food insecurity remains a serious issue.
The question now is not whether food insecurity is an issue at BU, but what can be done to mitigate it. The University already has a number of resources for this very purpose, including the Bear Necessities Food Pantry and a designated nutritionist who holds free meetings for those interested in improving their dietary habits.
Linda Salomons, speaking for BU’s food pantry and parent, family and events coordinator for Parent and Family Programs, wrote in an email that “numbers show that starting [in] fall 2019 until last week, the pantry had 561 unique users,” including both undergraduate and graduate students. She also reported there is a high rate of turnover, meaning the nonperishables, toiletries and frozen meals that arrive in the pantry don’t stay on the shelves for long. Additionally, Salomons wrote that the Food Pantry Advisory Committee “meets monthly to discuss how to keep the pantry sustainable, program development [and] how to best serve our students facing issues of food insecurity.”
Binghamton University Dining Services (BUDS), in association with Sodexo, also participates in the Food Recovery Network, which prepares packaged frozen meals at College-in-the-Woods Dining Hall using food that would otherwise be wasted. It’s worth noting, however, that Sodexo’s monopoly on food services on campus may be a contributing factor to the food limitations students face. This monopoly allows Sodexo to charge for their food services at rates often higher than other providers. Additionally, on-campus chains like Dunkin’ Donuts have been found to charge higher rates for their products than their off-campus counterparts on Vestal Parkway. Furthermore, students who must observe cultural, religious or dietary needs have limited options on campus. For example, Kosher options are primarily found in C4’s Kosher Korner, which, while welcome, is not convenient for those who live on the other end of campus. The only Sodexo-independent food sources at BU are the John Arthur Café and the student-run Food Co-op, which has been closed since the start of this academic year because of renovations in the University Union basement.
Should a student wish to get food off campus, seeking to avoid the higher rates at the University, their options are even more limited. The closest food sources to campus include KFC and Denny’s, with most grocery stores out of walking distance. Students without a personal vehicle must add hours to their grocery trips by walking and bussing to their grocers — a serious detriment to one’s success as a student with an already busy schedule. This issue isn’t helped by the food desert in the North Side and West Side of Binghamton, where there are virtually no adequate sources of food beyond a limited number of restaurants and convenience stores.
These difficulties are among many factors that make food insecurity as prominent as it is at BU. Although many students’ parents might pay for tuition, food services are a separate bill. Despite the stereotype of college students being well off, for some, paying for tuition means sacrificing food security in the process.
The University is attempting to take steps to improve the situation. Alexa Schmidt, a registered dietician at BU and an adjunct lecturer of health and wellness studies, reported that Rich Herb, executive chef of College-in-the-Woods Dining Hall, has facilitated the distribution of more than 200,000 pounds of food since the formation of the Food Recovery Network in 2011, with 16,000 pounds of food coming from last year alone. Although much of that food gets donated to the Community Hunger Outreach Warehouse (CHOW), 20 percent of it returns to BU’s food pantry. Additionally, Gov. Andrew Cuomo mandated last year that all state schools and universities in New York state must have student food pantries.
Although steps have clearly been taken, anyone who’s ever gone to a free food event on campus will see how fast food runs out thanks to eager, hungry students. The University community would benefit from further research into the dynamics of food insecurity on campus, and hopefully, gaining this data will lead to new solutions. The Editorial Board recognizes the hard work numerous organizations do to provide students with as much food accessibility as possible, but with this new poll, it’s clear more has to be done to resolve food insecurity at BU.