Hungry on Spring Break

Hungry on Spring Break

Spring Break Can Bring Food Insecurity for Low-Income Students Whose Primary Source of Food is the Campus Cafeteria.
ON CAMPUS March 17, 2018| Anthony Abraham Jack | The New York Times

Hungry on Spring Break

The phrase “spring break” conjures up images of college students lounging on beaches by day and hitting the clubs at night. Many students do, in fact, travel from campus to far-flung places. On the assumption that most students leave, schools generally shut down. But this assumption is outdated, especially as colleges enroll a greater number of academically talented students from poor families.

I met Valeria, an engaging sociology major from the Midwest, while conducting a study on social class at elite colleges that included white, black, Latino and Asian students. (Valeria is not her real name; the terms of my research protocol require that I use pseudonyms for all students.) In our conversations, she described one aspect of how it felt to be a poor student on a rich campus: “There’s always famine during spring break.”

This problem is more complicated and widespread than people realize. Data I collected in 2016 on colleges that have adopted no-loan financial aid policies, which is one way of measuring a school’s commitment to lower-income students, reveal that roughly one in four kept their cafeterias open during spring break the same way they do when classes are in session. At Harvard, where I teach, it was not until 2015 that the administration opened the dining halls during the break (a project I was involved in).

Some colleges, like Smith and Carleton, charge students additional fees to stay on campus during this period. Now, a daily rate of $10 or $15 might not seem like much to some. But to many lower-income students, it is substantial.

Spring break is a luxury that many students can’t afford. In a sense, though, it is one that many colleges make them buy anyway.

I faced this reality as a student at Amherst in the mid-2000s. Valentine Hall, our only cafeteria, closed. I could not afford to go home to Miami, the choice destination for many of my peers. Instead, I foraged through campus job postings to pick up extra shifts to pay off meals I put on my credit card.

Today’s students face a similar fate. With no access to a kitchen in which to cook or store food, Michael, a slim, reserved first-generation college student, told me, “I just go to Family Dollar to buy things that I can microwave.” Many students I spoke to rationed food they took from the cafeteria, oftentimes with the help of sympathetic cafeteria workers.

Spencer, the daughter of refugees, recounted how she “stole food the day before they closed everything — I took a bunch of bread and things that are not perishable.” Michelle, reflective and thoughtful, imported a strategy she used when she and her family were homeless in New York: She found a soup kitchen near campus. With comedic seriousness, Arianna, who has a Southern California vibe, told me, “Spring break is the real ‘Hunger Games.’”

Colleges are not unaware of what cafeteria closings can do to students. Some make special concessions for athletes, international students and those with certain campus jobs. Lower-income students are often not one of these protected classes. This institutional oversight brings about real pain. Worse, the strategies students adopt in response amplify their sense of isolation and difference. Miranda, her words heavy with emotion, yelled: “We don’t have a kitchen. It’s really frustrating. What the hell are we supposed to do?”

At the 2016 1vyG conference, where first-generation college students from the Ivy League came together, Molly, a woman with a pixie haircut, stood up in a room of 200 people to discuss the realities of being a poor college student. After pausing for just a moment, she revealed how she made ends meet during spring break: She increased her online dating activity to secure meals. Banking on men paying for the first date, she felt that her best option was to use Tinder as if it were OpenTable.

At elite colleges like Harvard, food insecurity — not knowing where your next meal is coming from — is more episodic, happening mostly around breaks. That is not the case at many other colleges around the country. At the University of Hawaii at Manoa, public health researchers found in 2009 that 21 percent students there experienced this reality firsthand. A more recent George Washington University survey revealed that one in five first-generation college students reported being “food insecure” three or more times a week. In a study done by California State University, college officials estimated that 21 percent of their students struggled with food insecurity. The reality is that students at state and community colleges bear this burden most acutely.

Food insecurity undercuts academic performance. But its effects go beyond lowering grades. Hunger in the midst of plenty weakens students’ sense of belonging and undercuts their social, emotional and physical well-being. Knowing one’s peers are away relaxing while you scrounge for food makes poor students not only keenly aware of their own economic disadvantage but also of what their colleges make them endure because of it.

Some colleges are reversing their decision to close cafeterias. Amherst now opens Valentine Hall during break. Connecticut College, which in 2015 charged fees to eat and stay on campus, no longer does for breaks in the academic year. Through valiant efforts by student activists, other colleges have opened food banks. Virginia Commonwealth University (in 2014) and George Washington University (in 2016) opened pantries to provide students with healthy food options. Columbia opened a food bank last year. We need more changes like these on individual campuses. But for systemic change, more robust interventions are needed.

Battling food insecurity in college calls for national policy changes. Increases to federal Pell Grants would provide students with resources for expenses associated with being in college, those covered by tuition and the many incidentals that are not. Expanding college students’ eligibility for SNAP is equally important. These changes would allow students to focus energy and time on academics instead of strategizing about ways to secure food. Given the present presidential administration, however, I am not optimistic that reducing such inequalities will become a priority anytime soon.

To borrow from the actress Viola Davis, diversity “is not a hashtag” to be celebrated when recruiting poor students and put on the back burner once they are on campus. It is one thing to extend coveted invitations to them. It’s another to really prepare for their arrival.

Correction: March 17, 2018
An earlier version of this article misstated the year in which Harvard first opened its dining halls during spring break; it was 2015, not 2014.

Anthony Abraham Jack is a junior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows and an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

The New York Times