GroupMe: A Weapon Against Food Insecurity on Campus
By: Alex Maloney, Staff Writer
FREE DUCK DONUTS IN WOOD HALL LOUNGE! SNACKS IN THE BROWN ALLEY ROOM! FREE MAMA J’S IN THE WHITEHURST LIVING ROOM!
These are just a few of the many messages straight out of the “Free Food at UR” GroupMe -- a group made to combat food insecurity on the University of Richmond campus. Lisa Miles, Associate Director at the University of Richmond’s office of Common Ground, worked with a student assistant to make the GroupMe after attending a conference in summer of 2018 about supporting underrepresented students. She felt the GroupMe would cut down on food waste throughout the Richmond campus as well as provide many students with opportunities to eat regular meals they otherwise could not.
Food insecurity is defined as, “the state of being without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food,” according to the Oxford English dictionary. This is an issue some students and faculty at Richmond, including Miles, say is not discussed enough on the university campus.
“Food insecurity is not an easy thing to talk about on the Richmond campus, or in general,” Miles said. “It’s not easy to talk about being a low-income student because there’s such a wide range of socioeconomic realities here.”
Therefore when Spider Firsts, the first-generation programming at Richmond, formed the group, Miles knew it would be open to all students, not just those with need. Closing the group may create hesitation about joining it, as students who do express need may not be forward about needing help. Additionally, students who do not face food insecurity can benefit from the group -- sometimes meals are missed accidentally or class runs later than the dining hall is open, and a student can grab a meal without any cost.
This group currently contains over 650 Richmond students -- almost a fourth of the entire campus. The rules are strict in the chat: post only free food, where it is on campus and when it’s gone.
Additionally, importance is placed on food safety in the group. Since food insecurity is a real issue on campus, students who regularly benefit from the free meals can not be eating unsafe foods. “We make sure hot, prepared meals are only left out for about two hours,” Miles said. “We message people to be thoughtful and dispose of food in a timely, orderly fashion for the safety of everyone in the group.”
The group attempts to de-stigmatize food insecurity and wealth disparities and open up the conversation on the Richmond campus.
“Some students may come to campus and realize there are others who have a lot more than they do, so the question becomes how much do you talk about that?” Miles said. “Food insecurity is the extreme end, with students who come from families that really need them to contribute financially -- to the phone plan, bills or other expenses -- and some students couldn’t even imagine that, because their parents are so able to help them. When you have such a broad spectrum of realities, it isn’t easy to talk about.” Miles said that the doughnut one student takes advantage of as a free treat, is another student’s breakfast for the day that they otherwise wouldn’t have eaten. Many don’t realize that reality that exists for some Richmond students.
UR does meet 100 percent of financial need from its students, which Miles acknowledges makes the campus fortunate compared to other universities who are unable to do that. At UR, most students also live on campus, giving those in dorms access to an unlimited meal plan and those in apartments options for smaller meal plans, both of which can be covered by financial aid. However, there are still students that demonstrate need, especially with regard to food. Dining options are limited on campus and there are not many local options to walk to surrounding UR, Miles said. While there are delivery options, that is an additional expense, one that some students can not afford.
“The office [of financial aid] is always willing to have a conversation if need has changed or if a student feels need is not being met,” Miles said. “I think it’s important students know that.”
UR does other things to combat food insecurity, like allowing students who are able and willing to hold jobs at food service establishments on campus. This way, students can work, make some money, but also are provided with a free meal at each shift.
The Free Food at UR GroupMe goes beyond just supplying students with extra snacks and free treats from some of their favorite restaurants. Its goal is to minimize food waste, combat food insecurity and open up a larger conversation to de-stigmatize wealth disparities on the Richmond campus.