an exploration of urban identity in the middle of Texas
“I stole groceries today bc I don’t’ have a lot of money and I got caught and now I have a class b misdemeanor and court in three weeks. I feel completely ashamed of myself and I just want to throw up. Just wanted to share this somewhere anonymous bc I’m too ashamed to talk to anyone about it.”
-Anonymous University of Texas Student, April 2018, Wildfire social media platform
Anthony Abraham Jack recently wrote in The New York Times Magazine that low-income college students need more than financial aid to succeed in higher education, underscoring that “admissions [to university] is not the great equalizer” we believe it to be (Jack 2019). Once students arrive on campus, they often find many more challenges to navigate, which can include specialized discourses around the college experience that require decoding (e.g., what professor office hours are) and/or chronically reduced financial stability as compared to their peers.
This piece tackles one of the challenges indicated in the epigram: food (in)security. This is increasingly an issue of paramount concern for universities, including the University of Texas (UT). Food insecurity, as defined by the USDA, refers to “limited or uncertain access to nutritious, safe foods necessary to lead a healthy lifestyle” (USDA 2012). In other words, consistent access to healthy food at a reasonable cost is a critical dimension of achieving food security. The USDA extends this definition to identify degrees of food security, placing people into one of three categories based on their responses to a series of standardized survey questions known as the USDA household food security survey module. Those categories are (a) food secure, or no issues accessing food; (b) low food secure, or having marginal food security; and (c) very low food secure. The latter two categories pose a concern for the USDA and for researchers as these statuses indicate a person is unable to consistently access healthy and affordable foods.
The research on food (in)security at higher-education institutions is new, though increasingly robust. Social scientists and nutrition and health researchers are documenting rising incidences of food insecurity across the United States, including at large public universities, where nearly 48% of student populations experience either marginal or very low food insecurity during their tenure as students (Calvez et. al. 2016; Martinez et. al. 2016). Lack of consistent access to healthy and affordable food matters for a number of reasons. Nellum (2015) notes that nearly half of the students who utilize on- or off-campus food banks are forced to choose between educational expenses and expenses for food each year. The impacts of such choices were noted in a study by Patton-Lopez et. al. (2014) that found that food-insecure students were more likely to have a lower grade point average than their food-secure peers. Other research, such as Alaimo et. al. (2001) and Deshpande et. al. (2009), identified increased incidences of anxiety and depression among food-insecure students.
With this research in mind, we recently conducted our own survey of food security, documenting the experiences of UT undergraduate students in accessing food on a daily basis to grasp what that status is and how it intersects with their daily lives and the challenges they face. Our approach involved replicating the research design of previous studies by incorporating the USDA’s household food security questions into our own survey. Based on the responses of 191 students, we found that 52% of undergraduates experience either marginal (24%) or very low food security (28%).
Food-insecure UT undergraduates were more likely to be on financial aid and engaged in part- or full-time work than their food-secure peers. And they were less likely to receive financial support from their parents. We also found that students who live on campus or just off campus in the West campus area tended to be more food secure than students who lived farther from campus, often in cheaper accommodations that require more time-expensive travel to and from classes. The cost of food on campus also mattered. Students rated the affordability of food on the UT campus as 3.5 on a scale of 1 to 5 (with 1 being “affordable” and 5 “unaffordable”).
Notably, the UT undergraduate experience with food mirrors that of many other large U.S. universities. Many researchers identify links between a student’s demographic status and food-security status. For example, Freudenberg, et. al. (2011) and Chaparro et. al. (2009) note the strong link between food insecurity and underrepresented students on campus (i.e., food insecurity affects women, students of color, queer students, and students with disabilities more than members of privileged groups). In drawing links between a student’s race, income, gender, and ability and his/her food insecurity, Cady (2014) raises the point: “Are these studies [on post-secondary food insecurity] accurate and if so, ‘Why are college students experiencing higher rates of food insecurity than the general … population?’” (Cady (2014) as quoted by Booth and Anderson (2017, p. 189). Exploring this question has produced a wealth of studies that investigate students’ lack of time for meal preparation (Hanna 2014) and lack of knowledge about meal preparation (Gaines et. al. 2014), and the fact that certain universities are located in food deserts (Meldrum and Willows 2006; Calvez et. al., 2016). To these studies, we add another dimension, one that considers the increasing neoliberalization of the university as an institution.
Following the lead of Wendy Brown, we define “neoliberalization” as “a governing rationality through which everything is ‘economized’ and in a very specific way: human beings become market actors and nothing but, every field of activity is seen as a market, and every entity whether public or private, whether person, business, or state, is governed as though a firm” (Brown as quoted in Shenk 2015). Writing about more than mere shifts in policy, Brown underscores that the processes of neoliberalization fundamentally change how we view ourselves and what kind of subjects we perceive ourselves to be (Brown 2015). In the context of higher education, neoliberal restructuring has brought on shifting viewpoints and expectations for faculty and students. Faculty are viewed as service providers, modifying their behavior accordingly, while students are viewed as consumers. Both faculty and students are seen as sources of profit (Canella and Koro-Ljungberg 2017). Acknowledging this, researchers are increasingly interrogating the neoliberal university, predominantly through reflections on the changing conditions of labor. They note that workers’ rights and protections are being increasingly diminished, leaving faculty, students, and staff increasingly vulnerable (Barrow 1990, Castree and Sparke 2000, Freeman 2000, Radice 2013, Slaughter and Rhoades 2000, Suspitsyna 2012).
Feminist investigations have pushed this work further, noting the felt and embodied impacts of neoliberal shifts, tracing their always-gendered, racialized, sexualized operations of power (Amsler and Motta 2019, Askins and Blazek 2017, Mountz et al. 2015). Influenced by black feminist analyses that have examined the academy as violent to people of color (Lorde 1981, McKay 1992), this work views the increasing financial and mental health pressures of academia and feelings of isolation and competition as disproportionately affecting women, people of color, and queer people (Gill 2010, Mountz 2016). We situate our work on food insecurity and the undergraduate experience here. As Mountz et al. (2015) notes, “[T]he effects of the neoliberal university are written on the body” (p. 10). Drawing on the words of Mountz et. al (2015) we assert the need for a shift in scholarly focus from faculty members’ bodies and their work to students’ bodies and the effects neoliberalization has on student life (Nixon et al 2017, Varman et al 2011).
To date, as Nixon et al. (2017) notes, “there remains little empirical research on the impact of changes wrought by marketisation, particularly at the level of the student and their experience” (p. 927). A lens that extends theorizations of students as customers of the institution explores the notion that universities increasingly view students (not just faculty) as potential sources of profit. As such, it highlights how universities (especially publicly funded institutions) respond to neoliberal cuts in government spending by shifting the burden onto students as consumers of education. Put this way, academic theorizations around the neoliberal university help to situate other more journalistic literatures, which document the rising costs of tuition, student debt, and loans as now common to the undergraduate experience (Meyerhoff et al 2011). To these themes, we add rising incidences of food insecurity. Doing so responds to research gaps around the privatization of food services on college campuses as well as increased financial pressures that include rising student debt. We maintain that there are links between food insecurity and the wider process of neoliberalizing higher education and call on critical scholars to further investigate those links.
To avoid the characterization that students are merely passive recipients of neoliberal restructurings that make life more precarious, feminist scholarship has stressed the ways resistance takes shape in neoliberal universities (Faria et al. 2019, Freeman 2000, Mountz et al. 2015). This literature highlights the ways (mostly) faculty navigate and confront power on a daily basis to resist the totalizing pressures of academia. We build on this feminist thinking around resistance to document how students navigate campus food landscapes and nourish themselves. To be clear, students are becoming savvy at finding ways to adapt to their food-insecure circumstances. One revealing finding from our research was the small acts of resistance against food insecurity visible in undergraduate communities across the US. For example, “Being Not-Rich at UM: A Guide” is a publicly accessible Google doc that started at the University of Michigan to provide accessibility guidance for students from non-wealthy families on topics such as part-time work opportunities and cheap food options on/near campus. Many other university students have followed suit, making their own shareable documents specific to their universities. In all cases, the documents are open to edits and comments by the community. Fighting the act of individualizing the responsibility of acquiring food is how students ease the obligation of attaining food and feeding themselves.
Currently, there are 22 listed guides for different universities. “Being Not-Rich at UT: A Guide” is shared among students through different social media platforms such as Reddit. Three pages in the UT-specific guide are dedicated to “Food” – specifically, making and finding food on and around campus on a budget. It is filled with tips including smart grocery shopping, food preservation, recipe resources, and how to find free food. In the comments section, students advise going to on-campus events that offer free pizza, ice cream, or cookies. Some students even receive email alerts regarding UT events that have been filtered to include only those that provide free food. For other students, commonplace acts, such as carpooling to a grocery store with peers, have helped ease the stresses of accessing food, especially considering the nearest HEB is more than 1.6 miles from campus — a far trek when towing groceries and perishables across two separate bus lines in the Texas heat. Students are finding and sharing forms of survival from within the system that has put them in this precarious situation.
UT administrators acknowledge that the status of its food-insecure students is a critical sustainability issue (Walker, 2017). In response, the University opened a campus food bank (UT Outpost) in 2018 through Student Emergency Services, which serves those who show their student IDs. And since 2016, UT Housing and Dining has held a bimonthly Farm Stand on campus in an effort to make local produce accessible to students, faculty, and staff, while also providing educational materials about sustainable food choices. However, the cost of this fresh produce remains higher than the cost of processed food at nearby fast food outlets. We contend that while these are steps forward, they do little to dismantle or even challenge the wider issue, which is the university’s increasing neoliberalization.
Thalia Bachmann-Padilla has a B.A. in Sustainability Studies from the University of Texas at Austin. Her research explores the intersection of food security and the undergraduate student experience. She is currently working in the private sector, assisting the city of Austin’s Zero Waste Strategic Plan through food waste diversion efforts.
Jayme Walenta is a Lecturer in the Department of Geography & Environment at the University of Texas at Austin. She researches environmental policy interventions and their associated injustices, to study whether particular environmental polices and movements reinforce existing systems of power and privilege.
Dominica Whitesell is a doctoral student in the Department of Geography & Environment at the University of Texas at Austin. Drawing from postcolonial feminist and intersectional theory, her research examines the economic and political geographies of clothing and fashion in Uganda.
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