OPINION: USC must acknowledge and address food insecurity

Shideh Ghandeharizadeh | Daily Trojan

Last month, USC opened a physical location for its virtual food pantry in STU 422, a resource for food-insecure students. But equally important to this emergency safety net for students remains USC’s acknowledgement of food insecurity on campus and the physical manifestation of its commitment to meeting student needs.

College advice guide books often include the best packaged ramen, but the prevalence of microwavable instant noodle meals arguably stems from an epidemic of hunger on campus rather than the laziness or ineptitude of college students. Today, the state of food insecurity on college campuses poses a crisis.

In 2017, researchers Katharine M. Broton and Sara Goldrick-Rab estimated that roughly half of all college students at two-year and four-year institutions struggle with food security. Though data remains incomplete at best and nonexistent at worst at private universities, through campus programs and testimonials, we know that our campus is not immune to this growing national epidemic.

A confluence of factors both on and off campus have created a perfect storm that renders steady access to affordable and healthy food a privilege rather than the right that it is. In 2016, college prices hit an all-time high, and for the ensuing academic year, USC’s tuition rose an additional $2,006, bringing the total cost of attending this school to over $70,000. Coupled with stagnating wages  for student jobs, skyrocketing student loan interest rates and unaffordable housing, books and food, the financial burden of higher education becomes much less manageable.

Federal and state efforts must be met with change and progress on our own campus. For one, continued and increased investment in the food pantry will expand access to options to more students and solidify its existence as a reliable resource rather than a mere stopgap emergency measure.

Second, we must engage in more discussions surrounding food waste and pricey food options, and translate these dialogues into action and progress. When construction began on USC Village, a USC press release promised “a wide range of high-quality, affordable retail” and affirmed that “student customer price points and community member custom prices points are an extremely good match.”

With 47.3 percent of families with children in the University Park Campus area living in poverty between 2008 and 2012, 24 percent of USC students eligible for Pell Grants and nearly two-thirds of Trojans receiving some form of financial aid, Cava grainbowls, Greenleaf sandwiches and Wahlburger entrees — which all sell for over $10 — remain financially out of reach for many in our community and on our campus. And though other eateries on campus, such as Seeds Marketplace and Lemonade also cost a pretty penny, they at least offer students the option of paying with discretionary and dining dollars.

Finally, greater accessibility to SNAP food stamps will go miles in ensuring that no student goes to class or returns home hungry. Work-study students, a sizable percentage of our campus population, stand eligible for these are benefits, as are those who work at least 20 hours a week. To promote awareness and use of this government resource, UCLA students formed CalFresh at UCLA, which brings Department of Social Services representatives to campus to register students. And though USC’s Undergraduate Student Government recently unveiled a similar program, more steps must be taken to expand its availability and reach.

These efforts to expand access to food stamps must be further coupled with efforts to expand access to EBT friendly retailers who accept these benefits. For example, Oregon State University remains one of the few colleges where students can spend SNAP dollars on campus.

Together, measures such as these, though only a start, will increase accessibility and affordability of food for students in the short and long-term.

Pundits, parents, activists, administrators and students often grapple with the question of “What is the real cost of college?” But beneath the deceitful price tag of tuition lie battles with affording simple meals, among other necessities.

It’s time to usher in and continue the discussion at USC because hunger is already in our backyard and on our campus.