1. What brought you to conduct this study of food insecurity, and why do you focus specifically on the college campus?
This project grew out of Dr. Nicole Peterson's work on food systems in general, which was often collaborative with her students, and Nicole had been looking for an on-campus project for students with limited transportation options and schedules. Nicole's mentor, Dr. Kim Buch, was heavily involved in creating the campus food pantry, and the opportunity to collaborate with the pantry really just fell into place. Dr. Freidus brought her expertise in medical anthropology to the project, pushing the team to understand some of the deeper implications of student needs. However, as we learned more about food insecurity and related issues, it became more important to us as faculty to address this not just as a research project but as a responsibility to understand challenges our students faced and how we could help address them.
2. Could you elaborate on the challenges and benefits of your collaborative methodology for this study, both as co-authors and with undergraduates who worked on the survey team?
The challenges of such a community-focused methodology were the additional time and effort needed to propose and review research goals and methods. The students would probably also add that it was chaotic at times trying to complete a project during an academic semester - we almost always ran out of time (and spring break often coincided with the best time to start collecting data). But the benefits for students has always been clear - not just knowledge about anthropological research, but a deeper understanding of challenges they or other students faced. Most students enjoyed the project and learned a lot from it, and the pantry staff also appreciated the information and other outcomes they gain, including their goal of providing a service-learning opportunity for students.
3. The article notes the need for a multidimensional and more-than-financial explanation of food insecurity. What are the material stakes of a more expansive definition?
The material stakes are clear in student and other populations, primarily the elderly. If we focus only on financial barriers to food access in our assessment, we'll miss students and other people in need and will not know how to reach them more effectively. This means that aid will be less effective and people may suffer. This paper begins to show the limits of an aid-focused model as well. Understanding the different components of food insecurity will better inform efforts beyond aid to support students and others.
4. Your study shows how food insecurity is tied to constraints of housing, transportation, time and so on. How does an examination of food offer a lens into broader questions of student poverty and struggles?
Food is one window into student expenses and access. Our next step has been to look at these different aspects both separately and collectively. This reflects a growing sense that students are, first of all, people, and that people don't experience food separately from rent, commuting, or their daily schedules. Considering the whole student, the whole person, requires that we stop assuming academic work is separate from hunger (we know they interact), and cooking as separate from income or housing.
5. The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically increased levels of food insecurity in America. Could you discuss the specific impacts on college students?
While our research was pre-COVID-19, we've seen the numbers from the Wisconsin Hope Lab that it has exacerbated food insecurity on campus. Off-campus, we know this has happened as well. It's frightening that so many students are struggling now due to income, housing, health, and digital access issues. We've heard that the pantry went from serving around 120-140 students to over 200 students a week because of COVID-19.