Food Insecurity on the College Level

We all knew about poverty. Of course we knew there are hungry people in this world. However, we didn't know that the face of food insecurity is a lot closer to us than we thought. Until recently, we didn't even know what the 3SquaresVT Challenge was.

A few weeks ago, Hunger Free Vermont, an advocacy and educational organization that combats hunger and malnutrition on behalf of all Vermonters, contacted us. Kristen Rauch, their Nutrition Education and Direct Market Outreach Coordinator, asked us if Spoon University would be interested in joining their pursuit to alleviate food insecurity.

As the USDA defines it, food security is "access to enough food for a healthy life, including ready availability of nutritionally adequate safe foods, and assured availability to acquire personally acceptable food in a socially acceptable way."

And so, as food-oriented individuals who believe in food security for all, the three of us excitedly agreed. Our passion surrounding food is not confined to recipe crafting and restaurant reviews. Moreover, we value the community that surrounds food. For us, that directly correlates to the social, economic, physiological, psychological, and environmental implications that emanate from it. Food insecurity is something we hear about in class and on the news, so we were eager to write something that has the potential to matter beyond ourselves.

However, we quickly learned that maybe this issue encompassed us more than we knew. As Kristen pointed out at our initial meeting, we all have or know someone who has slept through and/or skipped meals due to lack of financial means or as an effort to conserve monetary resources.

Isabella Alessandrini

We believe most people are aware of the "poor college student" concept. After all, we are infamously known to eat ramen and spoonfuls of peanut butter for dinner. Several studies conducted by the Wisconsin Hope Lab between 2015-2016 have estimated 20-50% of college students are food insecure. And yet, we are conditioned to accept this stigma as truth, because it is just the way it is.

But we wanted to know to know why.

Why is our demographic's overwhelming food insecurity not discussed? Is it not recognized that hunger wears many masks? Is it because institutions of higher learning are seen as a place of privilege that are beyond the grasp of hunger?

We couldn't be sure. Regardless, we knew the statistics were inexcusable. We believe all individuals should have the right to access adequate nutrition, and so we asked Kristen what we could do to shed some light onto this quiet suffering. 

The 3SquaresVT Challenge

3SquaresVT, federally referred to as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), helps low-income individuals and families purchase food that they need. 

Kristen told us that we could partake in the 3SquaresVT Challenge, which occurs during Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, the week preceding Thanksgiving. The challenge requires individuals to live on $37 a week, $5.29 a day, or $1.76 per meal. That is the average amount an individual on the 3SquaresVT program receives.

Isabella Alessandrini

As Hunger Free Vermont's website expresses, the purpose of the 3SquaresVT Challenge is not to mimic the true reality of being food insecure. Instead, it is a challenge that conjures a sense of awareness and empathy around what it might be like, physically and emotionally, to have to worry about such a limited food budget.

A bit shocked by the numbers, but even more inspired to help, we decided to give the challenge a go for a day in an effort to encourage others to engage in the campaign. 

And so, we hit the most centrally located grocery store for the majority of UVM students, City Market, and got straight to work.

Shopping on a Budget

In order to create a more efficient budget, we decided to pool our funds of $5.29 per person to have $15.87 total, which we later learned is actually $3.27 more than the average allotment for a family of three living on the 3SquaresVT budget for a day. However, we combined our money because we thought this would be more cost effective, allowing us to buy more things in bulk. As two dietetics majors and a nursing major, we were aiming to make our day of eating as healthy as possible. Emma and Isabella are also vegan, so that was another consideration for our meal preparation.

Katie Simeon

For breakfast, we went straight to the bulk bins and bought about 0.46 pounds of rolled oats (a little over 3/4 cup each), about six tablespoons of grind-your-own peanut butter, and three medium bananas to split amongst us equally. This totaled up to be $2.44.

Isabella Alessandrini

For dinner, we also decided to keep our meal family style. We bought 1.38 pounds of sweet potatoes, a can of black beans, and a 10-serving box of parboiled brown rice. We chose to combine beans and rice to serve as a plant-based source of complete protein. As much as we wanted to get in enough greens for the day, we just didn't think a vegetable could be budgeted in comfortably. Dinner added up to about $4.96.

Seeing as our schedules were very different during the day, we decided that we were on our own for lunch, using individual money that was left over after shopping at City Market. The three of us each had $2.79 left for our mid-day meal. However, we found it was challenging to find a way to make this budget work with our busy schedules. Unfortunately, as we will discuss later on, we also realized convenience options came at a higher price.

The Challenge

Overall, we thought breakfast was fairly easy and nutritious, keeping us full for most of the morning. We estimated it to be just over 400 calories, with decent sources of protein, fiber, fat, and carbohydrates to fuel our day.

Emma Goll

For lunch, Katie went with a bagel, topping it with a hard boiled egg for a source of high quality protein. After running and attending classes all day, she found she needed more fuel and bought a cup of yogurt on campus. This brought her over her limit of $2.79 by about a dollar.

Isabella Alessandrini

Emma and Isabella are coffee drinkers and found that it was incredibly hard to budget in a cup of coffee and fit in a proper meal. Such a limited budget presented obvious compromise.

Emma Goll

After a rushed morning of classes, errands, attending a spin class, and a slight headache from caffeine withdrawal, Emma chose coffee and an apple. She went over budget by eleven cents.  

Despite her busy day of studying and running, Isabella held strong, getting a bagel with peanut butter and honey from Skinny Pancake for only $2.50. Forfeiting coffee allowed her to stay full for longer, and within budget.

Isabella Alessandrini

Our dinner was bland, yet reasonably satisfying. We wished we could have incorporated more nutrients with the addition of a vegetable, but we were grateful to have a healthy source of fiber, carbs, and protein in the rice, beans, and baked sweet potatoes. We were able to add a little fat and flavor with some vegetable oil and seasonings already supplied in our dorm kitchens.

Isabella Alessandrini

Our Thoughts and Reflections

The biggest learning curve we were presented with was food budgeting. Despite careful planning, we went over our allocated limit by 79 cents. 

We spent over an hour in City Market trying to establish a nutritious and affordable meal plan, and were presented with numerous challenges. It was incredibly stressful and eye-opening to delegate and make compromises. Our purchases involved checking and re-checking prices, searching for sales and unit conversions, weighing our food carefully, debating with each other, etc.

Isabella Alessandrini

Throughout the challenge, we were constantly focused on food and when to eat our next meal to subdue hunger as long as possible. We began to sincerely empathize with those who experience the true burden of food insecurity.

Upon reflection, it is rather upsetting that food, the basic sustenance of life, would cause so much tension, worry, and compromise. It is extremely heartbreaking to know that our peers, friends, and classmates could be struggling to find accessible, adequate nourishment.

We also caught a glimpse of the physical stressors associated with hunger, as well. Between the three of us, we noted poor concentration while studying, a light-headed sensation whilst working out, reduced fitness performance, and of course, increased hunger.

Ultimately, we were humbled by our experience completing (and slightly failing at) the 3SquaresVT Challenge. And with this new insight, we cannot be blind or complacent. We choose to continue our campaign against hunger by writing more articles and holding on-campus events in coordination with Hunger Free Vermont. With our documentation and words, we hope to establish awareness around food insecurity, particularly at the college level. We refuse to normalize it and turn our backs on quiet suffering. 

And ultimately, we hope you choose to join us.

What Can You Do?

Isabella Alessandrini

We completed the challenge a week before Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, so that you too could consider giving it a try. If you feel compelled to do so, please try the 3SquaresVT challenge for a week, day, or even just a meal the week of November 12th. You can sign up here.

Beyond the challenge, remember that food insecurity is a real issue in the state of Vermont and beyond. The suffering is not always obvious and does not always convey itself as we are traditionally conditioned to expect. Hunger affects all demographics, and it is important to remember that it may be infiltrating the lives of your classmates, peers, co-workers, friends, etc. 

As you embark into the indulgence of this holiday season, and even your life beyond, just remember to be kind in all pursuits, keep your eyes and heart open to the suffering of others, and join the campaign against food insecurity if you can.

If you are interested in ending the injustice of hunger and malnutrition for all Vermonters, please visit Hunger Free Vermont's website.