Meet Shayna, Student Researcher and Campus Hunger Project Advocate

Guest post by Shayna, a senior at University of Pennsylvania studying urban sociology and urban education policy and a former president of the school’s CfH chapter.

In the Jewish community, children are often taught the value of tikkun olam, or “repairing the world.” We are encouraged to bring in cans of non-perishables for school food drives, pick up litter off of the ground at parks, and treat others with respect and care. However, it is hard to fully understand, even as adults, the extent to which inequity exists in society and how much need there truly is for reparation.

I first begun to understand what “hunger” truly means while working at my county food bank in Westchester, New York during my senior year of high school. Everyday, we sorted and packed food into boxes for storage in the warehouse until a partner agency, such as a shelter, soup kitchen, or food pantry, requested its delivery. Seeing the huge amount of food in circulation from donors to recipients everyday prompted me to further research and get involved in hunger relief efforts, which in turn led me to volunteer with several organizations, including Challah for Hunger, in college.

Hunger is a multidimensional issue and is commonly misconceived to surround us rather than exist within our own neighborhoods and communities. The consequences of hunger and food insecurity stretch far beyond mealtimes, and restrict access to several other opportunities, such as education. This conflict was brought to my attention through my studies of urban sociology and urban education, and ultimately guided my decision to research food insecurity on college campuses for my senior thesis project.

Historically, college has been framed as a tool for socioeconomic mobility; the common tagline is “obtaining a degree is the key to starting on the path towards a prosperous life.” Yet, through extensive interviews, media analyses, and literature reviews, my research revealed that access to higher education remains elusive to certain populations, because a seat in a classroom does not address all of students’ needs for being physically and mentally prepared to learn.

Particularly in my focus on programs at the University of Pennsylvania, I was surprised to find several student leaders, campus organizations, and administrative departments aware of the issues of food insecurity among the student population, but working with their own resources on their own initiatives in isolation from one another. This disconnect exists on several scales. For example, Challah for Hunger and Swipe Out Hunger are both non-profit organizations mobilizing college students to address hunger, but on many campuses their student volunteers work entirely separately from each other. On a larger scale, student groups such as those are often disconnected from administrative committees working to address hunger in a more systematic way. Given that this advocacy work is relatively new, a lack of centralized structure and model for action nationwide and on individual campuses is understandable. However, I was confused by the missing communication between various stakeholders; there is an unexplained disconnect between and among students willing to share their stories about experiencing and advocating for food insecurity, student volunteers eager to support their peers, organizational leaders with advocacy strategies, and (in some cases) administrators with funds and resources to strengthen basic needs services on campus.

It is important to continue working to understand the prevalence and consequences of food insecurity in higher education in order to improve the accessibility of education for all. An increase in collaboration of skills and resources by those holding different perspectives and positions offers promising potential for productive assessment of, planning for, and evaluation of student food insecurity. Let’s work together to not let hunger stand in the way of educational pursuits!