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Food Insecurity Solutions Working Group releases findings, recommendations

Community members assessed the problem and generated ideas for addressing student hunger.
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Students eating in the Simmons Dining Hall
Students eating in the Simmons Dining Hall
Photo courtesy of DSL Communications

Recent survey data show that 2 to 8 percent of MIT graduate students and as many as 13 percent of MIT undergraduates do not have enough to eat. And the problem is not unique to MIT: Other similar schools report that about 20 percent of their students struggle with food insecurity.

Troubled by these data and by anecdotal stories about student hunger on campus, Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart and Vice President and Dean for Student Life Suzy Nelson charged the Food Insecurity Solutions Working Group (FISWG) in fall 2017 to explore the nature of food insecurity at MIT and formulate potential solutions. The group examined MIT data, looked at how other schools were dealing with this problem, and listened to hundreds of MIT community members.

The FISWG has released its final report to the MIT community, making recommendations across four broad categories: time and access; money; financial literacy and education; and marketing.

Report recommendations and implementation plan

“Dean Nelson and I are very grateful for the working group’s significant efforts. They really dug into this problem and came up with some powerful recommendations that will help to make a difference,” says Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart. “We are committed to responding to the report’s call for action, and we will be working with students, the Division of Student Life (DSL), the Office of the Vice Chancellor, and other partners across campus to implement these important recommendations in the coming weeks and months."

In addition to examining MIT data — including the 2017 Student Quality of Life Survey and the 2017 Undergraduate and Graduate Cost of Living Surveys — the working group canvassed other schools to benchmark their approaches, which included low-cost pantries, meal swipe sharing, and emergency grant programs. “At a high level, solutions at other schools share commonalities,” Nelson said. “But, our main takeaway was that this problem could only be fully addressed at MIT by implementing coordinated solutions that fit our community’s needs.”

Five key recommendations are receiving specific attention: creating a low-cost grocery store; analyzing dining and food payment options across campus; improving education on financial literacy, budgeting, and cost-effective cooking; working to decrease the stigma of help-seeking for food insecurity; and continuing to support students through emergency funding programs for graduate students and undergraduates, and the SwipeShare guest swipe donation program.

“One student at MIT going hungry is one student too many,” said David Randall, senior associate dean for student support and wellbeing and FISWG chair. “I’m really pleased with the working group’s efforts to address this difficult situation with actionable short- and long-term recommendations.” Together, Barnhart and Nelson have made implementing the report’s recommendations a top priority for DSL. With Randall, new Director of Dining Mark Hayes will play a central role in implementing a number of programs, and progress is already being made with a new dining plan structure that helps to increase student flexibility and choice.

Students and staff are also currently reviewing bids for MIT’s next dining contractor. In addition to their capacity for helping MIT become a “food secure” campus and providing good, wholesome meals, the companies are being assessed on factors including their ability to introduce programs to help all students learn about wellness, nutrition, budgeting and shopping, cooking skills, and sustainability, their organizational stance on social responsibility, and their own sustainability efforts. The selection will be made soon, and the new contract will go into effect on July 1.

Promising steps have also been made on the creation of a low-cost store that will sell fruits, vegetables, and other staples that students can use to cook low-cost, nutritious meals. The majority of other schools benchmarked by the FISWG have some kind of store as part of their approach. Analyzing their operating models has prompted conversation about how and where an MIT store would operate.

Ongoing initiatives to respond to food insecurity

Some targeted solutions are already underway, according to Varsha Sridhar, a first-year student and working group member. “DSL has already begun initiating several long-term and short-term programs in response to the FISWG’s recommendations, such as (the new Rebecca’s Late Night Café in) Pritchett Dining Hall and SwipeShare,” she says. Since December, 291 students have donated 993 guest swipes for students in need. In partnership with current house dining provider Bon Appetit, DSL ensured that swipes donated in the fall rolled over for use during the spring semester. “The strong response to SwipeShare is a testament to the generosity of MIT students and the strength of their community,” Randall added.

Students can obtain meals through SwipeShare discreetly. Undergraduates can contact any Student Support Services (S3) dean in 5-104, and graduate students can email Associate Dean Naomi Carton, who supports graduate students and their families. Forms for requesting undergraduate assistance and graduate student assistance are accessible online.

“Another major issue that the FISWG recognized is the lack of awareness and stigma surrounding food insecurity,” Sridhar said. “MIT’s chapter of Donor to Diner has been working to raise awareness of the issue across campus.” The group’s ultimate aim is to connect students in need of food assistance with resources ready to help.

The Accessing Resources MIT (ARM) coalition is also helping to raise awareness of MIT’s resources. In response to work done by the students of Class Awareness Support and Equality (CASE), ARM is compiling an inventory of supports available to students with high economic need; assessing how those resources and services are advertised to students; and identifying any gaps and potential solutions for raising awareness about the resources that can help, especially among incoming students and families.

“It was truly awe-inspiring to work alongside MIT administration members who were passionate about working toward zero food insecurity on campus,” says Tchelet Segev, the CASE and Undergraduate Association representative on the working group. “I also found it valuable that the administration was constantly seeking student input, both by having a graduate and undergraduate representative in the group, but also by reaching out to student stakeholders across campus. The FISWG findings are a result of a highly collaborative process.”

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