Before the pandemic, Deon Wade, senior in computer engineering, lived on-campus and had access to the dining halls for meals. When COVID-19 hit and he moved off-campus, that changed.
Wade has a job off-campus, but online classes and weird hours associated with those prevent him from working enough hours to comfortably support himself, he said.
“With my time kind of being taken up, I would go do those things, but I’ve kind of just stretched out as much as I could for food,” Wade said.
Though he’s aware of community resources like the Konza Student Table and the Cats’ Cupboard, he doesn’t have time to use them. Even if he did, he said he probably wouldn’t.
“It is a little weird trying to go for help for something that you don’t necessarily fit in with the qualifications for,” Wade said. “I’m a little bit fortunate because I have a job and I can at least make … money to go actually get food.”
Those resources, he said, are for people who have more need, like those who are unemployed. Vickie James, a coordinator for the local Food and Farm Council, sees it differently.
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“Sometimes people think food insecurity means we’re talking about the homeless or people who don’t have food every day, all day,” James said. “I want people to understand there are various levels of food insecurity. If you alter the food choices that you make because you’re not sure you’ll have enough money or food to get to the end of the week or the end of the month, if you alter what you’re providing yourself to make ends meet with other expenses, then that’s a level of food insecurity.”
Shelly Williams, the Morrison family director of the Cats’ Cupboard, said degrees of need shouldn’t stop people from accessing food assistance.
“There does seem to be a social stigma based around the need to prove our individuality. We’re Americans; we have to be strong individuals,” Williams said. “A hungry person is a hungry person, and so there are people who struggle more and people who struggle less.”
According to climate data collected in the 2016-2017 academic year, nearly 45 percent of participants indicated they had experienced food insecurity during their time at Kansas State, a problem only exacerbated by the ongoing economic crisis associated with COVID-19, Williams said.
In general, Riley County has one of the highest rates of food insecurity in Kansas, registering at 17.5 percent in 2017.
“It’s not one easy answer, our community has some uniquenesses that are in place that have also contributed to us having a slightly higher food insecurity,” chair of the local Food and Farm Council Sharolyn Jackson said.
Adrian Self, council member for the Food and Farm Council, said one reason is that Riley County is home to two major transient populations — K-State and the nearby military base. These people tend to live here temporarily and are less likely to have large amounts of savings to fall back on during times of crisis, making them more susceptible to food insecurity.
Jackson said other barriers to accessing and consuming nutritious food include a general lack of knowledge regarding food preparation and inadequate or unreliable transportation to get to a grocery store.
Local groups like the Food and Farm Council and Cats’ Cupboard have stepped in to remedy some of these obstacles through various channels.
Specifically, the Food and Farm Council, which launched in 2017, has several community action teams seeking to address food insecurity by providing access to meals and food items, while also offering education and trying to minimize food waste, Self said.
“[We are also] a networking hub for all kinds of people: people that need food, people that want to give food, people that want to volunteer, people are just looking for information to get better connected,” Self said.
However, advocacy and community support won’t solve every problem that leads to food insecurity, James said.
“If food insecurity in a community … is a long-term problem, it takes a long-term solution,” James said. “The way we develop policies in our community would make a difference.”
Policy changes that could improve some food insecurity include increasing the minimum wage, reducing the sales tax on groceries, ensuring affordable housing at every income bracket and others. James says the key is enacting a “health in all policies” approach.
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“Health in all policies is a concept that every time a proposal is put on a table and an organization, an agency or local government makes a decision, the question is as, ‘How will that decision impact in a positive or negative way the health of our populations here in our community,'” James said.
Food insecurity is, after all, a health problem.
“Food is a basic human need,” Williams said. “If you have enough food to live a healthy, active lifestyle, you are empowered to give back to your community and your family and yourself in ways that are far healthier and more advantageous to you as an individual and your group.”
Even then, there isn’t a perfect solution. After all, Self says, food insecurity, as a community issue, is a “cyclical” one. Jackson said that nature makes it difficult to solve the problem, but that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t try.
“As much as I’d love to say we can erase this problem, I don’t see that happening, but I think what we can shoot for is to have a system in place that we can meet the need as it cycles,” Jackson said. “We’re making progress, but I don’t think the need is ever going to be completely gone.”
The Cats’ Cupboard in Fairchild Hall 009 provides access to student-specific food assistance. More information about the local Food and Farm Council and its initiatives to address the roots of food insecurity is at nourishtogether.org.