Hungry for change: How Duke’s graduate students are tackling food insecurity on campus

<p>The Community Pantry’s stockroom where volunteers fill bags for weekly pickup.</p>

The Community Pantry’s stockroom where volunteers fill bags for weekly pickup.

On Duke’s nearly deserted Central Campus, one of the last buildings standing holds a vital resource. From the outside, it looks like a humble brick house—but inside lies a treasure that some students desperately need.  

Welcome to Duke’s student-run food pantry. 

The Community Pantry opened in 2017 and serves students in the graduate and professional schools. It came in response to complaints from fellow students who didn’t have enough money to eat, said Nicholas School Ph.D. student Rashmi Joglekar, pantry founder and former president of the Graduate and Professional Student Council. Thus began the GPSC’s initiation to the world of food insecurity. 

Today, the pantry serves more than 30 students per week, according to current pantry director Nicole Stantial, a Ph.D. student in the molecular genetics and microbiology program. Throughout the past three years, the operating budget grew from $2,000 to more than $30,000 a year, and the pantry also started offering Wednesday evening hours.

Still, students at Duke are going hungry.

Facing food insecurity on campus

At first glance, prosperous colleges like Duke appear unlikely places to find student hunger and homelessness problems. 

But recently, student hunger has become an issue on campuses nationwide, and no college seems immune. 

Why? Students face costs not covered by federal aid and have limited eligibility for food assistance programs, according to a 2018 report by the Government Accountability Office. 

Meanwhile, low-income student enrollment has grown as institutions work to make college education more accessible, according to the same GAO report. 

Since 2015, the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice in Philadelphia has issued an annual #RealCollege report on the status of campus food insecurity, surveying more than 330,000 students at 411 colleges and universities in the U.S.  

Nearly 40% of surveyed students reported being food insecure in the past 30 days, according to the most recent report released last Wednesday. 

Pantries like the GPSC Community Pantry are short-term fixes, Stantial said. While they are valuable resources, student-run pantries cannot be the only solution, as they aren’t sustainable long-term.

“For real change to happen, we need to have administration and faculty and staff on board,” Stantial said.

Under Larry Moneta, former vice president for student affairs, the Office of Student Affairs increased the number of food points for first-year undergraduates and added a $5 meal option at most campus eateries. 

Ask anyone, though, and they’ll say those “meals” are more like snacks. “They’re probably half the size of most West Union meals,” sophomore Tess Noonan said. 

The pantry’s exponential growth signals an increasingly urgent need among graduate and professional students. 

The GPSC Community Pantry where patrons can “shop” for groceries, toiletries, gently used professional wear, and childcare supplies.

Hunger: A hidden problem

Rochelle Newton was the first to ring the alarm bell on food insecurity at Duke. As Duke Law’s senior information technology manager, Newton spends most of her days around students in the library. When she first started in 2008, she often asked where students were from and how they got to law school. If someone brought a bagged lunch or plastic container, she’d ask why they brought lunch from home.

Some students said they brought food because they were vegan or disliked the school restaurant’s offerings. Others, however, couldn’t afford lunch every day. Some told her they often snagged free pizza from an event because they couldn’t afford anything else. 

On Thanksgiving Eve of 2008, Newton asked a few students lingering in the law library why they weren’t with their families for the holiday. They told her they couldn’t afford the trip home. 

“So, I invited them to my home for dinner,” Newton said.

Every Thanksgiving since, Newton has fed students who don’t have food or a place to go. She’s expanded beyond Thanksgiving dinner and now opens her home and kitchen every Sunday evening to anyone who needs a home-cooked meal.

As someone who grew up hungry from kindergarten through high school, Newton said she could empathize with these students. She said it was an issue at the “heart” of where she was. That’s why she asked students so many food-related questions.

“I grew up extremely poor and food insecure,” Newton said, “and that lasted until I found myself in my career in information technology.”  

Even though she has a steady job and a good salary, Newton says she’s still food insecure, but in a different way. “I’m worried that it may come back again, that I may be food insecure again,” she said. Newton still stockpiles extra food in her pantry, just in case. 

As word traveled about her willingness to feed students, her Sunday night dinner attendance grew so much that Newton felt the University should step up and take action.

The ball soon started rolling. 

A little more than a year after Newton began inviting students for dinner, she convened a small team of experts from across the University to dig into food insecurity at Duke. 

Newton learned from a limited survey she sent out that one grad student slept in his car and stole ketchup packets from fast food restaurants in order to eat. Another student spent summers tenting in Eno State Park so she could sublet her apartment for extra money. 

Her team concluded they needed more data. 

Anecdotes were one thing, said Sarah Zoubek, associate director of Duke’s World Food Policy Center. But for Duke’s administration to act, they’d need baseline numbers to underscore need. Last April, Zoubek and the WFPC conducted a small survey of the graduate student population with funding from the Office of Student Affairs.

Zoubek credited Newton for pushing the issue forward, despite various departments playing hot potato with it. 

“I think this topic bounced around Duke and didn’t really have a clear owner,” she said. 

Duke students take action

Around the same time, graduate students started speaking out about their need for food.

“We were getting bombarded with complaints that students didn’t have enough money to travel home or to buy a special wardrobe or to eat,” said Joglekar. This was the first time that leadership had heard concerns about financial and food insecurity from their peers.

The stories were jarring.

One student who shared his story with the GPSC General Assembly described how he spent weeks in the library copying books from other students because he couldn’t afford to buy his own. He also didn’t have money for food. Joglekar remembered him talking about how he would bridge the gap between financial aid checks by eating free food from campus events and sleeping on friends’ couches. 

“That was when it clicked that we needed to do something,” Joglekar said after hearing this story.

The GPSC Community Pantry officially launched in September 2017. In the beginning, the pantry only opened for three hours each Saturday. The first week, just three people came, Joglekar remembered. 

“And that was a good week,” she said. 

As word spread and the need grew, the pantry slowly swallowed up the first floor of the GPSC house. Its organization system improved, too. Cans and boxes that used to cover the stockroom floor now fill sturdy shelves that line its lime green walls. Positive feedback from pantry users helped motivate the pantry team in those formative days. 

Early on, a Dutch Ph.D. student came in with his infant daughter. Joglekar remembered the man telling her that his wife couldn’t get a work visa, so his university stipend had to feed three mouths. As he picked up baby food and diapers, he told her that the pantry had helped his family immensely. 

“There was nothing like that moment,” Joglekar said. “Even if he's the only guy that comes in this week, this is all worth it.” 

The pantry program added a new level of convenience last year with its weekly bag program. Pantry shoppers now place orders using an online form, and volunteers pack the bags on Wednesday evenings, leaving time for late additions before Saturday pickup. 

Last Wednesday, Stantial and another volunteer filled 25 bags. As one person called out the orders, the other darted around the shelves.

When Stantial joined the Community Pantry committee, she knew little about food insecurity on campus. “I'm fortunate enough not to have experienced it, so it really wasn't on my radar,” she said. 

But after hearing patrons’ personal stories and further researching the issue, she recognized the depth of the problem.

Teaming up across the Triangle

As the Community Pantry grew, its executive board learned about other nearby campus pantries and saw an opportunity to collaborate. They reached out to the Carolina Cupboard, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s pantry, and formed the Campus Pantry Collaborative in 2018. 

The student-run CPC meets monthly to swap ideas and best practices for pantry operation. After one meeting, the Community Pantry adopted a scanner and barcode system to more accurately track inventory. They also added products like sugar, oats and rice in bulk and encouraged patrons to bring their own containers. 

The CPC now has five member schools, with the addition of pantries from North Carolina Central University, Durham Technical Community College and North Carolina State University.

Joglekar said that after talking with the other schools in the CPC, they all realized that student food insecurity was rampant in the Triangle. The CPC strengthened its resolve to raise awareness, especially among the higher-ups at Duke and UNC. 

This desire to spread the word fueled the first-ever Campus Food Insecurity Symposium hosted by Duke this past Friday. Administrators, students and organizations from Duke and UNC gathered to spotlight the issue and brainstorm solutions.

Ideally, attendees would have walked away with a strategic plan to tackle campus hunger. But Joglekar, the symposium’s organizer, confessed ahead of time that she’d be satisfied by just getting all stakeholders to talk about the issue—something that’s never happened before.

“I think just having that conversation in itself is going to be very valuable,” she said.

The Office of Student Affairs, now run by Mary Pat McMahon, vice provost/vice president for student affairs, hired Joglekar to plan the event after she graduated in December. By educating administrators at Duke and UNC on the local and national state of on-campus food access, Joglekar hoped they’d feel inspired to take action. 

“We're very embryonic in our understanding of food insecurity at Duke,” Joglekar said.

That idea was only reinforced during the symposium. Compared with its Triangle-area counterparts, Duke conducted the least amount of research on student food insecurity. For instance, N.C. State published a full report on food and housing security among its students in 2018, and UNC surveyed its entire student body—more than 29,000 students—in 2017. 

In contrast, Duke’s researchers conducted a graduate and professional student hunger survey in April 2019 and released the results for the first time at the symposium. Out of the 1,783 respondents, they found that the risk factors for being food insecure include being a first-generation student, disabled or in a non-Ph.D. program. 

Zoubek and her team found that nearly 19% of respondents reported “low” or “very low” levels of food security. Respondents also complained that their graduate stipends had not kept pace to cover Durham’s rising cost of living.

While this first survey provided a rough picture of food insecurity at Duke, its scope was limited. It only asked a few questions and focused solely on graduate and professional students. 

Duke administrators who attended the symposium said they, like many others, had to embark on a “journey” into the topic of food insecurity. It was hard to wrap their heads around the idea of Duke students going hungry.

Paula McClain, dean of The Graduate School, opened the session with a story. When a fellow dean at the University of California San Francisco told her they’d started a food pantry for their students, she said that she wasn’t surprised given the exorbitant cost of living in the Bay Area.

But as soon as McClain got back to Duke, she received Joglekar and GPSC’s request to open a campus pantry of their own. 

“I realized that this was not just an issue relegated to high-expense income areas, but it was an issue for Duke students,” McClain said.

Both McClain and McMahon called on attendees to “proselytize” to others about the importance of tackling food insecurity on Duke’s campus and in the Triangle area. They also called for a more systematic and thoughtful look at the issue. 

“How do we help people understand that the growing economic disparities in our country impact our campuses?” McMahon asked. 

The symposium’s planning committee said they were pleased with the event’s results, and they plan to make it an annual event. 

Junior Katie Waeldner, a member of the committee, said the administration responded positively to the event, and their presence and engagement showed that they are ready to tackle the topic.

Stantial and Waeldner agreed that Duke needs a core working group that can create a long-term strategy to address food insecurity. 

After all, students graduate. Stantial has one year left and Joglekar is already gone. But it looks like their awakening is here to stay. 


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