When I first heard about student food insecurity on campus, I didn’t take it seriously. I thought it must be a joke. I felt spoiled my first year at Cal Poly: I had a comfortable living space, close access to food and a magical student ID to give me all that food. Breakfast, lunch and dinner? Try two of each every day, with multiple snacks in between. Friends coming to visit? I paid for all their meals. Yet despite all this indulgence, my peers and I still had an abundance of plus dollars left near the end of our first year. Food simply arrived at the snap of any freshman’s fingers.
Unfortunately, one in three Cal Poly students does not receive this royal treatment. They may have managed to secure education and (if they’re lucky) housing, but they’re still living meal to meal. Having met financially insecure students, I can understand the importance of being cautious with financial budgeting; after all, schools are only getting more and more costly. But I cannot understand how Cal Poly could allow any student to come to school with an empty stomach. It is completely absurd that students are facing difficulty acquiring the most basic of human necessities- but Cal Poly can mend this situation effectively.
The solution to student food insecurity begins with the financial mechanics of Cal Poly’s administration. The perpetual cycle of wasted money begins with requiring freshmen to purchase an expensive meal plan. All leftover plus dollars go back to Cal Poly at the end of the year. They do not rollover to the second year. Many freshmen find themselves with an abundance of leftover plus dollars, even after frequent spending. A common stratagem is to use leftover plus dollars to purchase groceries from Campus Market and Village Market for the next school year. The flaw with this solution is that many other freshmen partake in this hectic harvest, quickly exhausting campus stores’ supply. Other freshmen may purchase meals for older students. Although charitable, this act is ineffective because the meals are not going to the food-insecure students.
The meal plan system should be altered. Cal Poly should cut down on the total amount placed into freshman meal plans and redirect the saved money toward battling food insecurity. This would decrease the cost of the mandatory meal plan and therefore make it accessible to more students. The saved money could be directed to stocking the on-campus Food Pantry, where food-insecure students may go to pick up canned dinners. Additional money could be redirected to promoting student programs battling food insecurity. Freshmen are left with an abundance of leftover plus dollars and food insecure students are left with nothing, so why not alleviate both issues?
Cal Poly students may not be aware of the ongoing food insecurity issues on campus or how they can contribute to the solution. The Mustang Meal Share program is one such solution which has so far gone woefully unnoticed. This program allows students with meal plans to donate as many as 10 meals per academic year, with one meal costing $6.50 (in plus dollars). A donated meal can be used by a food-insecure student at any of the dining locations on campus. The donation method is simple and convenient too: students may fill out a voucher online or in-person expressing how many meals they wish to donate.
Unfortunately, there exists a lack of clarity and knowledge about the Meal Share program. As far as I can tell, the only initiative taken by Cal Poly Housing is to leave a stack of Meal Share vouchers at the front desks of freshman residence halls to collect dust. A poster in the common room of my freshman residence hall marketed the Meal Share program, but not many people noticed. Cal Poly should form committees to set tables in freshman residence halls and advocate for the Meal Share program. Emails should be sent out to all freshmen, informing them of the program and encouraging them to participate.
An emerging trend in Cal Poly Student Organizations is the creation of student clubs battling food insecurity. One startup in particular has already established a presence on campus. Swipe Out Hunger at Cal Poly, a new club formed last year, is an entrypoint for all students looking to eradicate student food insecurity. Unlike the Mustang Meal Share program, a meal plan is not needed to join. Swipe Out Hunger aims to educate students on food insecurity and fundraise for the campus Food Pantry and Food Bank. This wave of philanthropy has proven appealing to students. At the last Club Showcase, Swipe Out Hunger witnessed successful results with the recruitment of 100 new members.
Cal Poly should follow in the path of its students and catalyze community interest in this problem. Whether this is accomplished by promoting student participation in programs like Mustang Meal Share and Swipe Out Hunger or initiating an awareness campaign through email, posters around campus, or highlighting relative information on the Cal Poly website, it is clear that administration needs to follow the leadership of its students. After all, no student should have to struggle with this most basic of needs.