Day #076: Redefine food security

It’s challenging to graduate from college when where your next meal comes from is the toughest question of the day.

Inspired by Michael Bierut’s 100 Day Project, 100 Days to a Better RVA strives to introduce and investigate unique ideas to improving the city of Richmond. View the entire project here and the intro here.

  • Idea: Start college food pantries at all Richmond universities.
  • Difficulty: 2 — Students are capable of incredible things, especially when it comes to their fellow students. It’s only a matter of time until CUFBA is on most campuses in Virginia.

Food security means access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life. Virginia has a comparably low number of food insecure residents, but Richmond (21.7%) has the second highest fraction in the entire state. A wide variety of people suffer from food insecurity in Richmond, but one group that gets overlooked is college students. The VCU RamPantry is changing this, and it may act as a model for other universities in Richmond.

There are almost as many preconceptions attached to VCU students as there are attached to hunger, but preconceptions easily allow the truth to hide. Take VCU sophomore Jennifer for instance. She’s a first generation college students who works 25 to 30 hours per week making $2.13 per hour plus tips. Her mom is unemployed, and her step-father has a low-wage job in the service industry. Jennifer is a commuter student who is often forced to choose between food, gas, and textbooks.

Jennifer has been able to rely on VCU’s RamPantry when needed. Stocked by private donations and run by 117 trained student volunteers, the pantry has helped 1,085 students since opening in January of 2014.

It’s important that we find ways to increase food security for people like Jennifer, not only because she is human, but because food insecurity is an extra burden on students who are already failing to graduate at an unbelievable rate.

VCU’s four-year graduation rate is 30% and its 6-year graduation rate is 57%. As a society, we place a huge emphasis on higher education. States fund universities, the federal government subsidizes student loans, and our K-12 system prioritizes it almost to a flaw. But worse than not going to college1 is taking on debt to go to college and failing to graduate.

Greater than 40% of the RamPantry’s users are first generation college students. According to the Center for Student Opportunity, 30% of post-secondary institution are low income, first generation college students. 89% of such students won’t earn a bachelors degree six years out of high school. Decreasing food insecurity could be a low cost way to increase graduation and retention rates which would be an unbelievable return on investment.

The RamPantry’s mission extends beyond simply handing out cans. They have a resource center with literature on meal planning and portion sizes, and they teach how to cook fresh foods. They even offer Halal, Kosher, and vegetarian options. They now offer toiletries, thanks to recent donations from the VCU School of Dentistry and Soapbox Soaps. Only 5% of the pantry’s users are enrolled in the SNAP program, and the center wants to help other eligible users qualify. All of this is accomplished with the goal of creating a stigma fee environment.

Virginia Union University, J. Sergeant Reynolds, and University of Richmond should find ways to eliminate food insecurity on their campuses. This could be an opportunity for universities to collaborate and strengthen Richmond’s identity as a three-university town (Day #019).

College is challenging enough on it’s own–it’s even tougher for students strapped with debt and those who are forced to work in addition to school. It seems nearly impossible while food insecure. Low graduation rates are terrible for students and society. If increasing food security can even incrementally increase the probability of graduation, then we have a financial and human obligation to do everything in our power to promote food security.

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The VCU RamPantry is open on Wednesdays from 11:00 AM – 5:00 PM on the 3rd floor at 819 S. Cathedral Place and will be moving to the VCU Student Commons next semester. Central Virginia food banks can always use more donations.

RamPantry President Taylor Thompson and RamPantry founder Terrance Walker contributed this article; however, the entirety of the article may not directly reflect their individual beliefs.

Love this idea? Think it’s terrible? Have one that’s ten times better? Head over to the 100 Days to a Better RVA Facebook page and join in the conversation.

Photo by: Salvation Army USA West

  1. Alternatives need to be pushed, see Day #065: A glut of college degrees 
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Aaron Williams

Aaron Williams loves music, basketball (follow @rvaramnews!), family, learning, and barbecue sauce.

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