By Amelia Seepersaud
In any normal semester, the Middlebury chapter of Challah for Hunger, a national non-profit organization that advocates to combat campus food insecurity, will come together to bake and sell challah, a traditional Jewish bread, to raise funds for local and national anti-hunger projects and organizations.
The last fundraising event held by this group on campus was in the spring of 2020, before students were forced to return home early due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It took about 20 volunteers operating in shifts at the Proctor bake shop, and they were able to bake about 400 challah breads. All of the proceeds went to the local food shelf HOPE, as well as one of Challah for Hungers national partners.
I sat down through Zoom with Molly Babbin ’22, a member of Challah for Hunger and a leader of the Campus Hunger Project at Middlebury College, and asked her about the goals of Challah for Hunger in Middlebury. She said to me, “there is a lot more to do than simply baking and selling Challah.”
The fundraising events are a means of creating awareness on campus about the issue of food insecurity on both a local and national level. But, as Babbin emphasized throughout our conversation, more substantive change needs to be made if we are to actually address the issue of food insecurity that students are facing.
Enter: the Campus Hunger Project, a project developed out of the Challah for Hunger organization, meant to address the issue of student food insecurity on college campuses. In the past year, the students in the Campus Hunger Project were asked by the Challah for Hunger organization to start thinking about food insecurity on campus. Last fall, food studies professor, Molly Anderson, along with her class, conducted a survey to find out how many students on campus are currently facing food insecurity, or feel they do not have access to the food that they need. About 9.7% of respondents reported not having enough food while at school and about 5.4% of respondents reported being worried that their food would run out before they would be able to buy more while at home.
The students involved in the Campus Hunger Project found these results to be alarming because although these percentages seem really low, it is still unacceptable that there are any students on campus that are food insecure at all. As a means of assisting food insecure students, they began to create a resource guide last Spring which they sent out just after students were sent home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The resource guide, which can be found at go/foodresources, laid out the food resources available to students in each state. Sending out this guide at the time that they did was crucial, as the pandemic has increased the amount of food insecurity present across the country.
Though the survey gave some insight into the issue of food insecurity on campus, it raised more questions than answers. As Babbin phrased it, “what we know is there is a lot we don’t know.” The results of the survey left a lot of questions with regards to the root causes of campus food insecurity. Babbin explained: “So, we are sitting here saying, okay where are the gaps? Who is being missed by these existing break programs? We can’t just assume that the students' needs are being met by their family’s income.”
To find more answers, the Campus Hunger Project has been working on creating a new survey in hopes of finding the reasons as to why students responded the way they did last fall. They do not want to simply identify the fact that there is food insecurity on campus, they want to address the causes for it. Being able to determine what these causes are and where the gaps lie in Middlebury’s current programming will be the first step toward more long term change on campus. The ultimate goal of the project is to create long term change so that “no student staying at Middlebury is going to struggle with food. That is just not acceptable.”
This change on campus will take a lot of collaboration and community building. Babbin expressed the Campus Hunger Projects concerns regarding the very few efforts taken by Middlebury College to combat campus food insecurity and to grant students sovereignty, or control, over how nourishing and culturally appropriate the food they are consuming is. One of the main criticisms the Campus Hunger Project has, is the fact that there is no centralized space, like on the school website, that students can turn to to access information and guidance on food resources. There is no office or person that students can reach out to when they have specific food concerns or problems.
Going forward, the Campus Hunger Project wants to advocate for a centralized space to give students easy access to the information they need if they are experiencing any form of food insecurity. They would also like to expand the resources and information available to students when it comes to education about affordable and healthy local food options that are available to them.
As we continued to talk about the issue of student food insecurity, Babbin emphasized that “you can’t talk about food insecurity without talking about the racial disparities that are so evident.” Seeing as the issue of food insecurity and food sovereignty is a very intersectional issue, Babbin feels inclined to get as many students input in this project to ensure that when going to the administration to push for change that students of all backgrounds are kept in the conversation.
This past semester, it has been difficult to conduct outreach with the increased virtual component that comes with organizing in the midst of a pandemic. But going forward, the Campus Hunger Project wants to engage with BIPOC students to gain insight into how food insecurity may be relevant to their struggles on campus. Babbin and her peers have already begun to facilitate individual discussions with BIPOC students and they are looking to engage with more cultural organizations as well as other BIPOC affinity groups to create more dialogue surrounding campus food insecurity. By engaging with these different groups, the Campus Hunger Project can understand what it is students need in terms of the food they have access to and the resources that should be available to them. It will also ensure that all students are kept in mind when pushing for new campus policy.
After talking with Babbin, it became apparent that there is much work to be done on campus to create lasting change to combat and ultimately end student food insecurity and strengthen food sovereignty. In order to achieve this, the Campus Hunger Project will be a “multi-year” project that will need to be very collaborative and community-oriented. As Babbin emphasized throughout our conversation, the fact that there are students who are struggling with food is simply not acceptable. The long term change this project is looking to enact is not only important, it is essential.