by Brian Choquet
AMHERST, MASS.—A crowd of spectators stood below an unusually placed black piece of cloth that hangs inside of the University of Massachusetts’ Hampshire Dining Hall. The crowd of faculty and passing students watched as the university celebrated its third consecutive year as “Best Campus Food,” an honor given to them by The Princeton Review.
Peeking above the heads of these spectators were six paper signs.
“You’re celebrating food we can’t afford to eat!” one sign said. Another exclaimed, “You can’t celebrate if we can’t eat!”
Protesters adamantly held up their signs as they listened to loud chants led by the UMass marching band and speeches praising the university’s dining program, UMass Dining. Speakers included Steve Goodwin, UMass’ Deputy Chancellor and Chief Planning Officer, and Robert Franek, Editor-in-Chief of the Princeton Review.
While the signs spoke critically of the university—juxtaposing the celebratory environment UMass was trying to achieve on that Sept. evening—the students holding them remained mostly silent.
Even as that unusual black piece of cloth fell to the ground, revealing a banner commemorating UMass’ three-year reign withas ‘number one dining,’ protesters remained nearly silent. They only spoke amongst themselves or to curious bystanders.
“We are calling to attention the fact that UMass is so self-congratulatory and puts everywhere on every surface you can see that they have number one dining,” said protest organizer Lou Purington, a senior social thought and political economy (STPEC) major at UMass.
According to Purington, their purpose was not to cause a disturbance to the event. It was to make students, top Umass officials, and The Princeton Review see their message.
The protesters argue that meal plan prices are too high and UMass students are finding themselves becoming food insecure—a growing issue on college campuses. Food insecurity is described as the disruption of food intake or eating patterns because of lack of money and other resources.
“They’ve created a cult-like culture where people go wild for it,” Purington said. “It creates a very uncritical eye and it doesn’t give space for understanding that people can’t afford to eat here.”
Since last year, UMass’ unlimited meal plan, which is the default plan given to students, increased from $2,978 to $3,067 per semester. UMass’ Office of News and Media Relations was unable to comment on the reason for such increases after multiple calls to their office.
The unlimited plan gives students unlimited swipes into any of the four dining halls on campus, 15 swipes that allow you to bring guests into the dining hall, and $250 worth of dining dollars, a UMass based currency that is redeemable at select dining locations on campus.
At $3,067, unlimited is the second most expensive meal plan any student at a four-year Mass. state university can have; the highest is UMass’ unlimited+ plan, which costs an additional $202. Compared to other Mass. state schools, UMass’ unlimited plan costs at least $372 more than the most expensive meal plans at other schools. The highest of these is UMass Boston’s resident meal plans at $2,695 per semester.
Talks of meal plan prices and their relation to food insecurity is nothing new to UMass administration, according to Goodwin. Immediately after the celebration had ended, Goodwin spoke with protesters and was quoted in a Daily Collegian article, saying, “There is a lot of conversation going on in the administration about these issues about things like food insecurity but also the overall costs.”
These conversations amongst administrators are not enough for students.
“They’re talking about all these inside conversations that are happening around food insecurity, but there’s not adequate student input in those conversations.” Purington said.
The Reality of Food Insecurity
Despite varied prices, food insecurity among Mass. state college students is consistent throughout the state. According to a 2018 study by The Wisconsin HOPE Lab, about a third of Mass. state university students and 44 percent of Mass. community college students consider themselves food insecure.
While UMass was one of the few state schools not to participate in the study, these numbers correspond to the estimated 20 to 30 percent at UMass, says former Food Insecurity Advisor, Tassandra Rios-Scelso.
For the 2017-2018 academic year, Rios-Scelso worked with UMass as part of an AmeriCorps Vista position to help address the issues of food insecurity at the university. During her time, she found that many students reduced their meals to a more affordable option in order to save money. This resulted in students running out of meal swipes later on in the semester.
“Many students that I worked with shared with me that they skip meals or rely on peers to share meal swipes,” Rios-Scelso said in an email. “They go to class hungry or skip class to stay in the dining commons to save a swipe.”
Food insecurity does not only leave students hungry. A lack of food may lead students to fail in school due to being hungry and feeling shame for being food insecure. Shame can also lead many students to suffer in silence and be afraid to speak up about their situation.
Food insecurity is not limited to undergraduates. A 2017 food security survey conducted by UMass’ Graduate Student Senate (GSS) found that 55 percent of the 602 respondents considered themselves at least somewhat food insecure. According to GSS president Canan Cevik, this survey received triple the response than previous surveys they’ve conducted.
To Laura Hancock, a senator in GSS and an original member of the group’s Food Security Committee, the overwhelming response shows that graduate students do care about food insecurity, but it also reveals that it is something that many face in their day-to-day life.
“For students to see a subject line that says we’re looking for information about how food security affects you and 602 people responded to that…it shows that it’s an important issue to them and it affects them,” Hancock said.
She added that many graduate students also have families to support. In their survey, 29% of students responded that they have at least one person to financially support.
Similar situations often go unnoticed according to Rios-Scelso, who believes a majority of the campus community is unaware of the high number of people affected by food insecurity at UMass.
“For me, I noticed that the popularity of UMass Dining tends to be the first thing people think of when I talked about food insecurity on campus,” she said before paraphrasing how people typically reference UMass Dining’s number one ranking.
Living with “Number One Dining”
This accolade of “number one dining” has become more than just a simple title that students can brag about to their hometown friends. It’s developed into a mentality: a source of pride that resembles the same kind of enthusiasm schools like the University of Alabama have towards their trophy-winning football team.
Since it was first crowned with the title of “Best Campus Food” three years ago, UMass’ school spirit has been partially tied to its food. It’s an unusual concept, but unlike sports or the various high achieving academic departments, almost every student is connected to the food UMass serves. Only because people like to eat things that taste good.
Its award-winning quality even leaves students and visiting parents excited to eat on campus and experience the special events UMass Dining holds throughout the year.
However, for the small group of students who work closely with the issue of food insecurity on campus, ‘number one dining’ has become a point of hypocrisy and the extravagant events UMass Dining holds have become a source of annoyance. Their belief is that UMass should divert funds that go towards throwing extravagant dining events and instead be used to help lower the cost of meal plans.
“We see that ‘number one dining’ has to include accessibility,” said James Cordero, a campaign advocacy coordinator at UMass’ Center for Education, Policy & Advocacy (CEPA).
Since it was formed in the fall of 2017, Cordero has been part of the Food Access Coalition (FAC), a student-run organization that aims to improve food access to food insecure students. Their work includes providing weekly community meals to food insecure students and helping promote food access initiatives on campus.
The coalition was started by former CEPA campaign advocacy coordinator, Stephanie Higgins, to help unite various groups on campus who worked on food access initiatives— an issue the senior public health major has dedicated most of her college career to.
The long nights Higgins spent meeting and organizing with members of her coalition were fueled by the passion she holds for her advocacy work. Part of this passion stems from an incident she witnessed when her family used to take in foster children.
“This one kid, he came to us and we gave him his first meal. We were like ‘that’s for you,’ and he’s stuffing it in his face so frantically,” said Higgins, who was a sophomore in high school at the time. “It still makes me really upset to think about it. When the authorities had found him, it had been five days since he had eaten at all and he’s a two-year-old. That didn’t feel right to me and I was thinking how could I work on the system.”
Through Higgins leadership, the group put on a protest at Hampshire Dining Commons last semester, where they protested a potential $180 increase to meal prices. Their work also has included providing weekly community meals to food insecure students and helping promote food access initiatives on campus.
“Our goal is to make sure people are aware that this is a systemic issue and if we come together, we can actually make some differences here,” said Cordero, a sophomore English and STPEC double major.
From Rios-Scelso’s research, students who are most vulnerable to food insecurity come from low-income and first-generation backgrounds. They are also typically part of historically marginalized communities, such as students of color and those who identify as queer.
“At the end of the day, our meal plans are some of the most expensive in the nation,” Cordero said. “A lot of students were reporting the meal plans were something they did not have access to. Or if they did have them, they had meal plans that were inadequate.”
According to The Hechinger Report, the average yearly cost of a meal plan for the 2016/2017 school year was $4,500. This number has likely gone up, but during the same period of time, UMass’ unlimited plan still exceeded this average by over $1,282.
While UMass offers help to food insecure students on a case-by-case basis, Cordero believes these only target symptoms of the issue instead of the issue itself.
These solutions include the Dean of Student’s Emergency Microgrant Program, which allows students to apply for small grants that can be used towards living expenses. The student care supply closets also allow economically insecure students to take out common household necessities, such as toiletries and tampons, and helps bring down a student’s cost of living.
These resources aren’t as extensive as ones offered at other universities in the country, but Rios-Scelso believes that UMass is heading in the right direction in how it supports food insecure students.
“There is always work to be done to better support educational access and equity within higher education,” said Rios-Scelso. “I believe that’s true across the country in terms of promoting food security and models of practice in higher education that support today’s students.”
Other resources are primarily student-run, including the school’s food pantry.
Food pantries on college campuses have been steadily increasing as more colleges begin to realize the severity of food insecurity amongst its students. In Mass., a majority of four-year state universities operate food pantries, including UMass Boston, UMass Lowell and UMass Dartmouth. At these schools, campus administration plays some role in the operation of their pantries.
That is Julia Cremin’s end goal for UMass’ food pantry.
“Our hope was once we get it going big, [UMass] will take it over completely and have a huge food pantry,” said Cremin, a founding member of the food pantry who helps run it with her fraternity Alpha Phi Omega (APO), a national community service fraternity.
When it first opened in mid-March, the pantry was operated inside of APO’s office and served roughly 50 people in the two months it was open. Students have since been emailing APO to see when it will open for the fall semester.
The pantry runs primarily on donated food that it collects from organizations and bins left around campus. On most days last semester, it was open from 4 to 7 p.m. This allowed food insecure students to visit APO’s office when it was less busy and have it feel like a safe place for them to get food.
The need for these kinds of spaces is immense for struggling students due to the large stigma against their situation and the fear of being judged.
“You can feel a little bit of nervous energy when people come for the first time,” Cremin said. “I think a lot of people feel better and are more prone to coming back after meeting us for the first time because they know it’s a welcoming environment. People aren’t going to know they’re going there.”
Although the pantry has already helped a substantial number of students, Cordero attributes the most effective efforts of combating food insecurity is when administrations works with students. Such collaboration has become an increasingly difficult task since Rios-Scelso finished her work at UMass last semester and the community was left without a replacement.
Rios-Scelso’s departure eliminated what used to be the liaison between student activists and UMass administration. Since the beginning of the fall semester, students have begun to feel more distance from administration.This has propelled them to take make bold actions such as their protest at Hampshire Dining Common.
The added challenge has not stopped students from organizing with each other to discuss how they can make UMass implement concrete change. Ideas like creating a page where students can donate their unused swipes have been proposed but no single solution has emerged. However, all agree that there is a need to educate students about the issues of food insecurity on college campuses.
“What we want to happen as we continue with these grassroots efforts is a serious discussion and planning of policy on the university, state, local, on all levels possible really,” Cordero said, “to combat food insecurity and promote food security among undergraduates, graduates, and all residents of this area.”
Brian Choquet is a junior from the University of Massachusetts Amherst studying journalism and communication.
The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion.
All photos were taken by the author. The cover photo was taken inside the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Hampshire Dining Commons, where students held signs protesting an event celebrating UMass’ third straight year as The Princeton Review’s “Best Campus Food” on Sept. 12, 2018.