High on a shelf above Georgia DeKeyser’s desk at the UAA Student Health and Counseling Center rests a framed image of a man in a doctor’s white jacket, holding a box with cans of food.
Long ago, that man, Daryl Young, first director of the SHCC, noticed a recurring problem.
“Students would come in because they didn’t feel good,” DeKeyser said. “He’d ask, ‘When was the last time you ate?’ ‘Three days ago.’ So he just started this, this generous guy with his own money, started putting these bags together of food. We would store them in the pharmacy and then, as need be, we’d give them to the students.”
Now, DeKeyser and her staff still provide that service, the emergency food cache, to help students through times when money is tight and they don’t have enough—or anything—to eat.
The cache is one of several efforts made by UAA staff to help students access sources of free food. Housing makes available unused meal card swipes; Student Life and Leadership’s Daily Den offers healthy free snacks and beverages on the bottom floor of the Student Union; and, as part of the UAA Human Services Club’s annual “Ton in Ten,” Parking Services accepts donations of peanut butter and jelly as payment for up to two parking citations.
DeKeyser still vividly remembers what it was like to be a college student.
“I remember I would have oatmeal in the morning, canned chili at night and that was it,” she said. “Whether students are self paying for college or their parents are helping them or they have a student loan, it’s a time when there’s not a lot of extra. There’s no doubt in my mind there are students here who have nothing extra in terms of buying food. Some students are just trying to figure things out, want to be independent, perhaps don’t want to ask family or parents for some extra money.”
UA Foundation provides funding for the emergency food cache bags. Between July 1, 2015 and July 1, 2016, the SHCC gave out 161 bags, each containing three days worth of food—nine meals.
“I think it’s really hard to ask for help,” DeKeyser said. “We try to remove every barrier to that. When people come in and identify that they’re food insecure, we try to take them away from the front desk so they don’t have to continue talking about that at the front desk. We take them to a private place and give them the food and also a list of on-campus and off-campus food resources. We try to treat them like any other student and thank them for taking care of themselves, coming in. There’s no shame involved in it. That’s the approach.”
DeKeyser said an on-campus food pantry would be a valuable resource for students trying to make it through a time of “food insecurity”—defined as a state of having limited or uncertain access to safe, nutritionally adequate, culturally acceptable food, obtained in socially acceptable ways.
Ideally, a food pantry could be situated by the SHCC, she said, adding that such a pantry could be a student project.
“That would be marvelous,” she said. “If you look at other campus websites and put food insecurity in, some of them have a food pantry right on campus. I’d donate to that. I’d bring things in. It would be a coming together. My experience here is that 99 percent of the people on campus really want to help students. Even the bus drivers bring students in here for their needs. That’s my experience here. If we had a food pantry where the community could bring and donate food, that would be something.”
An innovative solution
Back in March 2013, David Weaver had been on the job for a month as director of UAA Housing when he learned that a student needed to take the rest of the semester off due to a serious illness.
He refunded her housing and meal costs (prorated). Then, while reviewing invoices from UAA’s contracted meal provider, NANA Management Services, Weaver noticed amounts listed for meal costs on the second and 14th weeks of the semester were identical.
“It was theoretical; I wasn’t tracking [student] attrition in my mind at that point,” he said. “I remember telling the fiscal officer, ‘You mean to tell me we lock into a price at week two and we continue to pay weekly invoices for the 15 weeks of the semester based on the number of meal plans at week two?’”
The problem with that, he said, is that students sometimes leave because they get homesick, marry, need to spend more time at a job, or fail to achieve academic success. “We give refunds, but we continue to pay for the meals,” he said. “We did the math; this is thousands of meals.”
Weaver, around that time, took note of 2013 undergraduate research survey done by then-students Rachel Wintz and Nathaniel Chriest, examining the issue of food insecurity at UAA.
Wintz and Chriest anticipated the food insecurity of UAA students would be higher than in the rest of Anchorage, and that Alaska Native students would have an even higher percentage of food insecurity because they would be living in a place far from the family assistance available to students from the Anchorage area.
The researchers calculated food insecurity values based on the students’ responses to the survey. The scale ranged from food secure, with a score of zero, to extremely insecure, with a score of 15.
The result: 31 percent of the respondents were noticeably food insecure—which included the responses of being moderately food insecure (21 percent), very food insecure (6 percent) and extremely food insecure (4 percent).
“I remember thinking this is serendipity that we have this actionable data that many of our students are sacrificing food to help cover their costs and we’ve got this untapped reservoir of legitimately owned university meals,” Weaver said. “I was able to say, we own those 1,800 meals and we’re going to use them.”
Weaver checked with UAA leadership and discovered there were no legal, tax-related or financial aid-related barriers to making those meals available to students who needed them.
“We had tons and tons of meal cards printed,” he said. “We gave stacks and stacks to SHCC, the Camai Room, Care Team and the Multicultural Center. It was like Christmas.” DeKeyser said her staff distributed 231 food cards between July 1, 2015 and July 1, 2016, with varying numbers of meals on each card.
“That’s a lot of meals,” DeKeyser said.
Faculty and staff associated with SHCC, MCC, Care Team and Camai Room are the people best suited to decide who needs the meal swipes, Weaver added.
“I love my job, I love the fact we’ve got 900 usually traditional-age college students, and half are first-generation college students,” he said. “It’s just really cool to see them matriculate through the system and get those college-going skills and develop a sense of grit. If a student is missing food for a couple of weeks…honestly, that is a make-or-break for that semester. There’s been a huge demand and NMS has been incredibly supportive. This created a pathway to award thousands of meals.”
Written by Tracy Kalytiak, University of Alaska Anchorage