It’s hard to study when you’re hungry

When I was deployed to the Helmand Province of Afghanistan in 2010, it exposed me to people from all over the world and from all stages of life. It amazed me to listen to them talk about the daily struggle of obtaining food and shelter for their families. Many of those individuals had left their homes to obtain work on the military installations in Afghanistan- imagine being so desperate that you choose to go to Afghanistan so that you can serve food to Marines or clean toilets.

I remember vividly thinking that while we in the United States have our problems, at least very few of our citizens go hungry. I was wrong and extremely naive. Students on college campuses all over the United States are going hungry every day- and yes, that includes students at Maryville College.

Food insecurity is defined generally as being without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable nutritious food. More importantly, it’s an epidemic that is plaguing our nation and disproportionately affects minority and first-generation college students within the higher education system. These student’s, who have an extremely difficult life, to begin with, now face the struggles of daily hunger while trying to better themselves.

A study conducted by the Wisconsin Hope Lab showed that out of 43,000 students surveyed (20,000+ of which were 4-year, university level students), 36% reported skipping a meal in the 30 days leading up to the survey. It also reported that 36 percent dealt with housing insecurity and a staggering 9% dealt with homelessness. These problems are compounded by the financial aid system failing to keep pace with tuition costs nationwide. These are numbers that we, as a nation, should be ashamed of. In a recent interview, I asked Dr. Andrew Irvine, an associate professor of philosophy and religion at Maryville College, what the biggest misconception was- in his mind- regarding campus hunger. His response was unexpected:

“I think my biggest misconception was that there just wouldn’t be much of an issue of students going hungry at a place like Maryville College. I hadn’t thought through the hard-economic realities so many students in the country face – more than 1 in 3 according to a recent national study – trying to keep a roof over their head (and often the heads of family members), pay for school, and eat a decent diet that will enable them to succeed educationally. It’s just so easy to assume others’ experience is pretty much like my own when it might be very different,” Said Irvine.

His response seemed to mirror my own thoughts on the issue when I enrolled here a mere 10 months ago. Are we not supposed to be helping our students succeed so that they can take on the problems our society faces? How can a student prepare for his or her future when that student is constantly hungry? Constantly weak? Constantly worried? The short answer- they can’t.

Since this problem has come to light in recent years, student activists all over the nation have begun to sound the alarm.  College campuses all over the country are instituting food pantries, growing gardens, and setting aside meal swipes to help combat student hunger in the United States. The question many are asking is: why are students leading this charge? Students can bring attention to the issue, but it takes caring and motivated faculty to truly combat an epidemic of this proportion. I also asked Irvine why he thinks it’s taken us as a society so long to address this issue.

“We don’t know exactly how many MC students struggle like this, although as an institution we could join the Wisconsin Hope Lab’s ongoing research on the issue. I think another reason is that it is easy to shunt the problem off onto students. The American Higher Ed landscape is diverse and heavily stratified. This has benefits and costs. For instance, it is always possible to suggest that a student who can’t balance their education with their needs for food and shelter should have gone a cheaper (and perhaps lesser) route. I don’t think we should be in the business of suggesting this. If we mean it when we hail Isaac Anderson’s mission, then we should be finding ways to ensure no MC student is food insecure.”

When students are given the tools and resources to help each other, they will. Since its creation, 48 schools have implemented the “swipe out hunger program” which allows students to donate a pre-determined number of swipes to those students who may be facing food insecurity. A student who utilized the program was quoted as saying. “free dining passes have given me the chance to eat when I thought I wouldn’t be able to. I used to go hungry and that would make it hard to focus in class or study- the passes really helped my studying and may have helped me get my GPA up.” Testimonies like this show a program’s worth.

Change is not made in our society without having to jump a few hurdles along the way. When asked what the biggest obstacle was in the way of a solution to this epidemic, Dr. Irvine said:

“The largest hurdle, I think, is simply the widespread view that education is an individual privilege and not a right of citizenship – if not a human right. When I went to university in Australia, everyone’s undergraduate tuition was covered by the state. Think of it: No college loans! No need to work fulltime! I could focus on being a student. So I appreciate steps like Tennessee Promise, even though it obviously poses challenges to us here at MC. But I also believe that if we mean to do good on the largest possible scale, then a small step in that direction would be finding ways to make sure hunger never prevents a serious student from pursuing their education at Maryville College. Let’s clear that small hurdle first, and then we can think about the big ones.”

The truth is a simple one. We in the United States could end campus hunger; we simply choose not to. Whether it be because we think it too large a job or because our profits just aren’t quite big enough, the truth remains the same. It’s time students stop accepting half-hearted excuses from leadership and start standing on the morals and values that made America great to begin with. No student should go hungry, the question is: what are we prepared to do about it?




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