New UMN research to find strategies to fight food insecurity on college campuses

School of Public Health professor Melissa Laska will look at possible strategies to fight food insecurity and research student experiences.

Volunteers Amber Chang, left, and Merri Bonde, right, prepare the Nutritious U Food Pantry to open in Coffman Union on Tuesday, Oct. 29.

Image by Jack Rodgers

Volunteers Amber Chang, left, and Merri Bonde, right, prepare the Nutritious U Food Pantry to open in Coffman Union on Tuesday, Oct. 29.

by Joe Kelly

New University of Minnesota research aims to find effective strategies to reduce the number of low-income students who are food insecure.

Melissa Laska, a professor in the School of Public Health, is beginning research on food insecurity and its effects for students at two- to four-year colleges and universities. She will analyze four to five years of quantitative data about food insecurity and its effects, as well as interview subjects about their experiences and perspectives.

“For many students, it’s a difficult stage of life,” Laska said. “There’s a lot that comes down on students and on top of all that not knowing … if you’re going to have enough food to last you until you get your next influx of money. That’s a pretty heavy burden to bear.”

Laska said her initiative aims to identify the systems at institutions that lead students to choose between paying for their housing or purchasing enough food for the month. University student groups like Swipe Out Hunger have helped students who need immediate food relief get what they need. However, there are possible ways to help students before they run out of food completely, Laska said.

Gigi Otten, an undergraduate student at the University and a member of Swipe Out Hunger, said their group talked about expanding efforts for food relief beyond donated meal swipes. But those efforts may not happen for another couple of years.

“We have definitely talked about finding new opportunities and ideas to do more things, but where our club is right now, [we] have a very small … amount of members,” Otten said. “There’s definitely an interest.”

Devon Payne-Sturges, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland who has worked with Laska in the past, said institutions can do small things to help students experiencing insecurity. One example is providing financial relief to students in the gap period between their first rent payment and their financial aid distribution. Another example is providing commuting students with places to keep their food during the day as an alternative to going to campus restaurants.

Even for students who do not commute, another contributing factor to food insecurity is access to grocery stores.

“Maryland used to have a free shuttle that would take students to area grocery stores and then they stopped it,” Payne-Sturges said.

Laska’s ultimate goal is to help students concentrate on their education, work and other life ambitions.

“I hope that students will be able to concentrate on their studies and won’t be worried about where their next meal is going to come from,” she said.