Pilot program takes aim at student food insecurity

Studies have shown food insecurity is a challenge for many college students nationwide. Even with financial aid, students can incur unexpected expenses or income shortfalls and find themselves looking for ways to assuage their hunger while trying to focus on their academic demands.

Cornell takes a multipronged approach to addressing this serious concern, and on Feb. 4, a pilot program will allow students who have bonus meals on their meal plans to donate them for students in need.

“For many years, Cornell addressed food insecurity on a person-by-person basis,” said Ryan Lombardi, vice president for student and campus life. “Now we are tackling the issue systematically through a multifaceted approach, not only meeting immediate needs, but also more fully understanding the challenges students face in meeting their nutritional needs.”

Shakima Clency, associate dean of students for student empowerment and director of first-generation and low-income student support, has been in dialogue both with students in need and with student groups interested in addressing these challenges. She has been charged with assessing the scope of food insecurity on campus and coordinating resources on behalf of students. Those resources include providing longer-term meal plan assistance; exploring avenues to improve on-campus access to nutritious meals and groceries; and increasing student awareness about healthy cooking and eating.

Last fall, Cornell Dining partnered with Clency to identify a number of “ambassadors” across campus who can give students passes for a free meal in any of the 10 all-you-care-to-eat dining halls, no questions asked. Ambassadors then will contact Clency, who will work with those students to gain a better understanding of their needs over the longer term.

“We want to eliminate any hurdles to providing those students a healthy meal right away as well as an ongoing source of complete meals,” said Pat Wynn, assistant vice president for student and campus life.

The pilot program will make it easier to provide those ongoing meals. Students who have bonus meals on their meal plans will be able to donate one bonus meal to a central “bank” that can be accessed by students experiencing food insecurity. Clency will manage the bonus meals donated and allocate them to students in need.

Clency said the pilot program is based on conversations that began last October with Dining Services about the nationwide Swipe Out Hunger program. Events to increase awareness of the program will be held during the first two weeks in February at lunchtime in Willard Straight Hall and Trillium, and during dinner hours at several all-you-care-to-eat dining facilities, including West Campus.

Clency said food insecurity is often interrelated with, or the cause of, other student concerns.

“Food insecurity often is linked to issues such as homelessness, an unstable living environment, transportation logistics, or health or financial concerns,” she said. “Food insecurity also can cause other issues, such as sleeping in class, being unable to concentrate or struggling to complete assignments. It is important that we address these larger concerns.”

In addition to providing food assistance, Clency will refer students to the appropriate Cornell resource to address these concerns, including the financial aid office; Cornell Health; Cornell Dining’s director of nutrition management, Michele Lefebvre; academic support; or the Access Fund, which Clency manages.

“The Access Fund was created through the generous gift of a Cornell alumnus to address students’ financial needs, such as covering emergency or transportation expenses, or educational expenses not covered through financial aid or other university resources. These unforeseen expenses, if not met through other avenues, can impact food security,” Clency said. “Since the fund was created, we have received additional gifts to the fund from both parents and alumni. We continue to welcome gifts to this fund, and to strive to identify and eliminate barriers to ensure that all students have rich academic and personal experiences during their time at Cornell.”

Progress also has been made to provide access to dining hall meals for those who remain on campus during breaks and on-campus access to fresh produce, groceries and staples for those who have difficulty shopping at off-campus supermarkets. Last year, Cornell Dining logged more than 43,000 dining hall meal swipes during the academic calendar breaks (fall and spring breaks, Thanksgiving and the break in February) at no additional cost to the student. During the school year, the student-run Healthcare Students Association, led by graduate student Gloria Coicou, offered a mobile pop-up food pantry. For the past three semesters, students have run Anabel’s Grocery on a volunteer basis, providing fresh, nutritious food and offering cooking classes for their peers.

Anabel’s Grocery is pausing its operation for the spring 2019 semester, while its leaders assess the store’s operations through an undergraduate social entrepreneurship course, AEM 3385, taught by Anke Wessels, executive director of the Center for Transformative Action.

In the meantime, Anabel’s Grocery will continue to offer cooking classes. This semester, it also is partnering with the Healthcare Students Association to operate the mobile food pantry out of the grocery store space temporarily.

“By working with students and better understanding the scope of food insecurity on campus,” Lombardi said, “we can develop a long-term, sustainable approach to meeting students’ needs for healthy and affordable meals and food, allowing them to focus on the education they came here to pursue.”

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Gillian Smith