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Are we doing enough for the food insecure?

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Students in line at the Campus Center Food Court. Photo by Caitlin Feest (She/Her) / Mass Media Contributor.  

It’s no secret that food is becoming more and more expensive every day. During a time where college tuition is skyrocketing, wages are stagnant and the price of housing is out of control, food prices are really pushing people into dangerous economic territory. As a university that advocates its supposed commitment to serving people of every economic class, we should be doing quite a lot to alleviate these pressures—particularly when it comes to food.
Despite my often-critical eye toward the way UMass Boston is run, we seem to do fairly well on this front. U-ACCESS and its associated food pantry are great resources that provide various services to people experiencing food insecurity. For example, I’m not sure how common it is for universities to offer legal advice and assistance on such matters, but we do offer such a service called the Justice Bridge Program. I think that is very forward-thinking and valuable.
According to their prospectus, U-ACCESS also has financial literacy programs that aim to help people plan their finances and programs in order to assist people who are financially struggling with taxes, babysitting and housing. Again, I think this is wonderful—although it’s not directly related to food insecurity, it can make an impact on one’s finances.
So, what do we offer that directly aids people with their nutritional needs? The food pantry is the major one. It’s mostly canned products, packaged foods and dry goods—but, according to the U-ACCESS prospectus, it now includes “fresh produce, toiletries and some school supplies.” It’s easily accessible, only requiring students to be enrolled in at least one credit and is located on the second floor of Campus Center.
There is also a program to help students enroll in the SNAP program, which provides members with a certain amount of money each month that can be used for purchasing food based on their individual need. This program, along with the food pantry, is a no-brainer of course. These measures should be the bread-and-butter of food insecurity assistance at all universities.
More generally, U-ACCESS is a place where students can ask questions about food—and housing—insecurity, receive assistance and get pointed to resources without judgement or shame. They do everything they can to help everyone they can with care and compassion.
However, is what they offer now still enough? Very few issues have solutions that can be implemented, set in stone and never revisited. The food pantry has evolved over time—as it should—but what about expanding programs? What else can we do beyond U-ACCESS programs?
Here is where I think we should improve things.
According to MassLegalServices, SNAP cannot be used to purchase “hot prepared foods to be eaten on the store premises or immediately…or restaurant food”[1]. Presumably, this rule is set in place to ensure that people are using their SNAP benefits to get the most food for their money, since prepared foods are not very cost efficient. This seems reasonable on its face.
Things get tricky with college students, in my opinion. While prepared, cafeteria food is still not very cost efficient, students are extremely busy as a rule and often do not have a lot of time to carefully shop for groceries and prepare food. The “freshman 15” often stems from the fact that students are buying what is quick and easy at the grocery store instead of healthy ingredients for home-cooked meals.
This means that they are probably eating a lot of ramen, frozen pizza, canned soup or Chef Boyardee, et cetera. The early stages of living on your own can often come hand-in-hand with mistakes and inexperience regarding keeping yourself fed and healthy. The U-ACCESS food bank is a great response to this—especially since it gets fresh produce every day from the Greater Boston Food Bank, but there is only so much food that one can take from the food bank. Furthermore, it exists as a pillar of support, not a regular grocery store.
With that as a baseline, it seems to me that school cafeteria food may represent a better, more reliable source of nutritious and relatively healthier food than what many students are purchasing at the store.
This is why I think SNAP should be accepted for some prepared foods at UMass Boston. It would require some caveats to work properly, however. This is how I envision it—certain healthy items, such as the salad bar or healthier menu choices, should be able to be purchased at a lower, subsidized price with SNAP cards for those who are applicable.
The major difficulty with this idea is that, according to the USDA Food and Nutrition Service, “if more than 50 percent of what a firm sells are heated foods, hot foods, and/or cold prepared foods, then that firm is considered a restaurant” and is therefore ineligible to accept SNAP at all[2]. There would likely need to be an effort by legal experts to determine how to get around this restriction—perhaps schools and higher-ed institutions could be argued to be exempted. Where there is a will, there is a way.
Now, this isn’t intended to be a glowing endorsement of university food. As I wrote in an article last semester, UMass Boston—and most other schools of any kind—need to step up their game when it comes to offering healthy choices. In fact, I believe that this is a golden opportunity.
You see, I learned that Sodexo—the company that runs our cafeterias—has a large hand in supporting our U-ACCESS food bank, especially in terms of food waste. I believe that U-ACCESS and its many donors—which include organizations from within our own university—can use this relationship to encourage Sodexo to improve the nutritional quality of their offerings.
This may even play into the subsidization of certain SNAP acceptable prepared foods at the cafeterias. If U-ACCESS and Sodexo work together to institute a major effort for healthier, more sustainable foods—which has already begun to be adopted by Sodexo—and publicize their work, the state might be incentivized to fund such food subsidies. A public campaign for good, healthy food on campus and expanded access for students experiencing food insecurity would be great PR for the state, and for Sodexo as well.
Now, as I alluded to before, buying prepared food—even at reduced prices—isn’t the most cost-effective thing to do, nor the healthiest. With this in mind, I think U-ACCESS should also take the opportunity to implement food preparation and nutrition education programs. These can include simple seminars on what to buy at grocery stores that are cheap and healthy, or classes to teach students how to prepare quick, easy and healthy meals at home.
I know that a lot of this may seem like a pipe dream, but big problems require novel solutions. While my ideas may not be the best ideas, implementing a little creative problem-solving from intelligent people is often all it takes to make a real difference in the lives of many people.
Inflation continues to eat an ever-deepening hole through the bank accounts of all of us. During this time, we need to come up with bold, new ways to make sure that our fellow students are eating their way through as many full, healthy plates of food as possible.
In the meantime, if you or someone you know is facing food insecurity of any kind, please reach out to U-ACCESS or visit their webpage on the UMass Boston website. You can also visit them in person in Campus Center, Room 2401. They do great work and will treat you with the utmost respect and care.
[1]https://www.masslegalservices.org/content/86-what-ebt-card-how-do-i-use-snap-benefits-and-where-can-i-shop#:~:text=You%20cannot%20buy%20the%20following,cleaning%20supplies%2C%20and%20similar%20items.
[2]https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/retailer-eligibility-prepared-foods-and-heated-foods

About the Contributor
James Cerone, Opinions Editor