How are Hopkins students fighting food insecurity?

By DRAKE FOREMAN | October 25, 2018

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CC BY-SA 3.0/Serge Ouachée Food drives collect non-perishable food items and distribute them to those in need of more food resources.

When students think about food insecurity in Baltimore, they may often envision marginalized communities which lack access to healthy and fresh produce or cannot afford to purchase food. Yet, students on the Homewood Campus also face challenges with food access, whether it is struggling to buy food during holiday break or not being able to afford fruits and vegetables.

The News-Letter looked into a variety of programs which seek to combat food insecurity at Hopkins, in the Baltimore community and in Maryland.

One popular resource for students seeking a free meal is the Free Food Alert (FFA). FFAs help to reduce waste on campus for sustainability purposes and to feed hungry members of the community. 

The program started in the fall of 2017, led by Homewood Recycling Office Program Manager Leana Houser. According to Houser, in just the first semester of the program, it was estimated that over 900 pounds of food that would have otherwise been thrown away was eaten by FFA users. 

“Within a minute of the alert going out, people stream into the space and line up for food,” Houser wrote in an email to The News-Letter.

The FFA encourages event planners to sign-up on their website, where planners post information about where and when students can find leftover food from events. Organizers post the location, types of food and how long the food will be available for. University affiliates subscribe through the FFA website to get notifications of leftover food either by email or by text. The FFA is open to any students, including students who are not food insecure.

As of December, FFA had over 2100 subscribers, 35 event curators and has held 138 free food events. Houser explained that FFA is by no means meant to end food insecurity on campus nor is it meant to ensure that individuals can have healthy meals every day. According to Houser, food insecurity is a systemic challenge and FFAs are not a reliable source of sustenance. She stated, however, that it does provide a small safety net at times. 

Ten percent of the 2,000 FFA subscribers indicated that they experienced food insecurity while at Hopkins, in a feedback survey released last year. 

Since FFA cannot provide a consistent and reliable source of food to those who are food insecure, a different project was pioneered congruently, by Nemo Keller, a Hopkins alumna.

In spring 2017, Keller, at that time an undergraduate senior, won the IdeaLab Acorn Grant for the Free Food Fridge project. Keller’s idea was to set up a fridge that kept leftovers which remained after the Free Food Alert went out, so that some students who may not have had the time to make it to the event could collect the food later at whatever time was convenient for them.

The summer after Keller graduated, recent graduate Ivory Loh and senior Emma Zeng took over the project. However, due to health and safety concerns, they were unable to distribute non-perishable foods to the public.

Loh and Zeng were then invited to the Food Insecurity Working Group at Hopkins, where they decided to shift the focus away from a Free Food Fridge and start a pantry that would store non-perishable goods. The Hopkins Food Pantry started its pilot program last semester.

The Pantry is located at the Center for Diversity and Inclusion and operates three times a week, on Sundays from 3-5 p.m., Tuesdays from 6-8 p.m. and Wednesdays from 6-8 p.m.

“When people hear the term ‘food insecurity,’ people often think of low-income communities lacking access to sufficient quality, affordable and nutritious foods. However, many people neglect that food insecurity is also present on college campuses, and over the past few years, its presence has been growing,” Zeng said.

Zeng believes that the number of food insecure students may be growing due to an increased enrollment of low-income, first generation students, the rising cost of tuition and a desire to save time and money by skipping meals.

“The enrollment of underprivileged students often comes with the cost students must bear after they have paid their tuition and purchased books and supplies for their classes,” Zeng said. 

When asked about the future of the Hopkins Food Pantry, Zeng stated that she wanted to increase the size of the pantry and mentioned possibly stocking perishable goods in the future.

“Something we’ve heard from people who come to the pantry is that they wish they could see more produce or more groceries, which I’m all for because that’s really nutritious and really healthy for people to have,” she said. “The Pantry has a lot of potential to grow, and I really like how this and the Free Food Alert have all started to take the initiative to address food insecurity. Because I think for a while people weren’t thinking about it.”

The Student Government Association (SGA) has also started to take action against food insecurity on campus. Sophomore Class President Sam Schatmeyer stated that he is aiming to address some of the issues with Hopkins Dining that revolve around food insecurity.

He explained that during school vacations and breaks, many Hopkins Dining locations close, and some students are unable to afford the cost of meals elsewhere.

Executive Vice President AJ Tsang also mentioned that SGA members are taking initiatives to address food insecurity at Hopkins.

Tsang stated that it has become a yearly tradition for the Senior Class Giving Campaign to encourage seniors to give back to the school community. This semester, the committee is trying to fundraise up to $3000 to donate to the Pantry.

“We’re only about 20 percent of the way there, but we’re working towards the goal,” he said.

Other organizations and individuals at Hopkins are also seeking to address the problem of food insecurity in the wider Baltimore community. Sophomore Nick Li is organizing a food drive for student athletes, but it will be open to donations from other student groups as well.

He stated that he was motivated to start the drive because he volunteered in high school, but noticed that there were not many opportunities to donate to food drives at Hopkins. He thought that a food drive would be an easy way to give back to the community.

“A really easy, beneficial activity is a food drive, because we have so much access to food, and we take that for granted whereas other people don’t. Just spend $5 to $10 and donate what could be a dinner or two to someone who can’t afford it,” he said.

To organize the food drive, Li first started off doing research to figure out where he was going to donate the food. His baseball coach referred him to a family friend who runs Heaven on Earth Now, an organization that organizes donation drives.

According to Li, Heaven on Earth Now prioritizes health as a major component in its donation drive.

“Not only are they providing food for people who can’t afford it or don’t have access to it, it’s also a healthier option, which I thought, as a student athlete, in accordance with good health, was perfect for us,” he said.

In addition to providing access to food, other resources like the Maryland Food System Map seek to inform people about where food insecurity affects communities. Launched in 2012 as a project of the Center for a Livable Future based at the School of Public Health, the Maryland Food System Map was created to give people access to data needed to make informed decisions about improving local food systems.

Researchers collect data from a variety of sources ranging from publicly available numbers, including the United States Department of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture, to local groups like the Maryland Farmers Market Association and Maryland Hunger Solutions.

In an email to The News-Letter, Caitlin Misiaszek, one of the creators of the Maryland Food System Map, explained how the data detailing food insecurity in Maryland was collected.

“On the map we include a data layer from Feeding America — Map the Meal Gap that looks at food insecurity. In addition, we have done in depth work with Baltimore City on the food environment, specifically food retail, which is just ONE piece of food insecurity. It’s a complex issue with multiple factors contributing,” she wrote.

When asked about what she hopes to accomplish with the Map in the future, she replied that she hopes the Map can be used as a starting point for information about food access and communities, cities and counties of interest.

“Using a geographic perspective we can better understand the distribution of people and resources — where are the gaps and need for more resources or where are there opportunities to expand,” she wrote.

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