Survey Proves Food Insecurity is Still a Problem on Campus

Lizzie Kane ‘22

Perspectives Editor

Siân Lewis ‘20 (left) and Caroline Roy ‘20 (right) explore food options in Lula Bell’s pantry.  Photo by John Crawford ‘20

In 2016, the Dean of Students’ office conducted a survey to assess food insecurity, amongst other needs, on campus. Questions like, “Are you aware that food insecurity can be a challenge for some students at Davidson?” and “While a student at Davidson, has there ever been a time when you did not have enough food?” were asked. Although some  questions were leading and not especially useful, these questions and others established that there were Davidson College students who were food insecure.

27% of respondents were found to not have had enough food at some point in their collegiate career. 38.16% answered that they knew another student who had not had enough food on campus. 919 total students responded to the survey.

A year after the survey, Lula Bell’s Resource Center was founded. A main feature of Lula Bell’s is their food pantry. Students are permitted to pick up perishable and non-perishable goods once a week during the school year.

In an effort to further tackle the issue of food insecurity, the 2017-2018 student government worked with Director of Auxiliary Services Richard Terry to develop the meal swipe donation program. It was to be overseen and administered by the manager of Lula Bell’s.

Each Reading Day, students can donate meal swipes from their own plan to go to this program for students in need. The donations are capped at 200 swipes—as Dining Services accounts for unused swipes in their budget each year—and the donated swipes are used the following semester. Through a form on Wildcat Sync, students who are on only one meal plan (and not in a Greek organization or eating house) can request 10 additional meal swipes to be added to their plan after a certain point in each semester. November 1st is the request date in the fall, and two weeks after spring break in the spring. There is no human interaction throughout the request process so as to avoid students feeling stigmatized and self-conscious.

However, when I decided to look into the finer details of the meal swipe donation program, I realized it was not functioning to the best of its ability. Students on campus are still food insecure.

Through talking with employees from Dining Services, Auxiliary Services, and Lula Bell’s, it was clear no one was keeping track of the effectiveness of the program.

Former Director of Dining Services Dee Phillips changed the cap for the donated swipes from 300 to 200 in 2019, but Terry does not know why.

 Terry has the number of swipes donated and used each semester, but has no way to tell whether or not Taylor Brendle, the former manager of Lula Bell’s, has distributed all of the donated meal swipes.

Brendle told me she had handed out (online) all of the swipes for the 2018 spring semester, but vast quantities went unswiped. The next semester, all of the swipes were not given out and rolled over into the following year.

To be more specific, in the fall of 2017, 261 meals were donated for the spring of 2018. Fast forward through that spring, only 52 meals were used. The same lack of use happened in the fall of 2018: 260 swipes were donated the previous spring and 94 meals were used in the fall. In the past, students with unused donated meal swipes lost them after the semester ended. Manager of CatCard Services Anne Cavett told me that this rule changed (at least for this last year): students were allowed to keep their extra meal swipes from the fall of 2018 and have them roll over to the spring.

After talking with the various departments, I was confused. Was there not a need from the student body for the amount of meal swipes being donated? Was only being able to use the donated swipes at Commons a barrier? Did students simply not know about the program?

I decided to conduct my own survey—with the generous help of Associate Vice President for Planning and Institutional Research Linda LeFauve—to try to get some answers to my questions.

In total, I had 311 survey respondents from the whole student body. A seemingly low number compared to the almost entire 2,000 student population, but it didn’t matter. From my survey, there was clear proof that students were still food insecure, as well as proof that a significant portion did not even know the meal swipe donation program existed.

63 people responded that their meal plan has included fewer meals than they generally need. Another option for the answer to the question of whether or not a student’s meal plan was “adequate” was “about the right number” of meals; this answer leaves room for students from that category to also be food insecure.

Asked the reason why they don’t participate in the full, 21 meals per week, meal plan, the highest response, 92 people, answered “I can lower costs to me/my family if I opt for fewer meals.”

Moving into the part of the survey about the Lula Bell’s food options, only 13 respondents had gotten extra meal swipes through Lula Bell’s. That could be viewed as a positive outcome or a negative outcome. The next question made me think negative.

146 respondents said that they did not know about the meal swipe donation program. That is close to half of the students who took the survey.

The final question on the survey read: “Last year, there were more donated meal swipes available through Lula Bell’s than there were student requests for them. If you were to guess, what might be some of the reasons?” 255 respondents said they believed that students do not know that they can get additional meal swipes. 55 people said they thought there aren’t that many students in need of more meals than the meal plan they already have.

The mystery remains unsolved, but a lot of evidence points to a lack of advertising that the meal swipe donation program exists.

Asked how the program is advertised, Brendle told me that social media posts are made, posters are put up around campus, Commons has signs on Reading Day, and “word of mouth is pretty effective as well.”

During my whole first year at Davidson, I saw a poster advertising the program once. It was in a corner of Wall, easily lost in the wide array of scientific posters around it.

As for word of mouth, in this day and age? That seems pretty pathetic to me and has proven to be ineffective. If that is an effort to avoid stigma, there are other ways around that.

The program could be advertised to all first-years during orientation; the program could be listed on the Lula Bell’s posters that are hung in residence halls; there could be a type of “open house” at Lula Bell’s that all students are invited to at the beginning of the year to better educate them on all the resources offered at the center. (I have to credit that last idea to a survey respondent.)

 Also, Davidson’s website page for Lula Bell’s does not mention the meal swipe donation program at all.

The lack of advertising is one of the main problems with the meal swipe donation program, but there are others.

Students should be able to use extra swipes at the Union because it has later and more flexible hours. According to Terry, swipes cannot be used there because “the volume there can be so difficult to manage at peak times.” Also they believe a student in need would be served best at Commons where “balanced options are available and they can enjoy an all-you-can-eat atmosphere.”

Students would be better off if they could check how many meals are left in their block plan to know if they need extra swipes instead of guessing or running out first. Additionally, this would help students better understand how many meals they need so that they don’t waste donated meal swipes. That being said, there should be smaller packages of swipes offered. Packages of three might be all someone needs at the end of the semester.

Students could be more inclined to donate dining dollars instead of meal swipes. I know that as a first-year I, along with many of my friends, had significantly more dining dollars than I needed. Davidson could possibly use data to determine an amount of meal swipes that could be put into Lula Bell’s budget. Dining Services already has to calculate how many meal swipes they anticipate won’t be used during the year when they are requesting the money for their budget.

To be clear, Lula Bell’s is a phenomenal resource that has done a lot of good on campus. According to Director of Civic Engagement and Bonner Scholars Kristin Booher, the follow-up survey that was done in the spring of 2018 found that the number of students “experiencing an inadequate food supply three or more times during the year” fell by greater than 10 percent between the 2016 and 2018 surveys; that was before the meal swipe donation program was even around.

 Booher told me this too: “One question asked, if someone hadn’t been to Lula Bell’s, why they hadn’t visited, and more than 50% said because they didn’t need to but then the next largest percentage (around 25%) said it’s because they didn’t know about it. So, last year there was a bigger push to get the word out and let students know what resources are available.” She said there was “a large increase in traffic” as a result.

This year, another survey will be conducted, as the center has been around for two years. While I was happy to hear that another survey would assess the programming and resources at Lula Bell’s, I have already found ample evidence of ways in which the center is not functioning as well as it could be.

The meal swipe donation program has helped students, but it is not helping as many students as it could be. I believe the first step in adapting the program is to go hog wild in advertising; it should not be a hidden gem for needy students to find.

While I have analyzed a lot of aspects of the meal swipe donation program, there is more research to be done. It is a complex program due to the lack of cohesion in the departments that make it operate. So let’s all sit down together and make sure we are doing our best to ensure that Davidson College students are not going hungry.