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Opinion | Food insecurity on Michigan campuses, a crisis we need to address

One of the most cherished ideas in our country is that anyone can rise up from poverty to the heights of financial security through sheer willpower and elbow grease. My experience as a student at Michigan State University has taught me that the reality of social mobility is much more complex for young people in the U.S. Like hundreds of other college campuses across the nation, Michigan colleges and universities face a significant lack of support for basic needs programs, affecting underserved students more than others. 

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Liam Donahue is a senior at Michigan State University and was raised in Midland. He is studying social relations and policy and German and is a member of the Spartan Food Security Council.

None of these barriers have been as jarring to me as the struggle for college students to feed themselves. According to a 2020 survey of Michigan State students, about 2 in 5 reported experiencing food insecurity to some degree. Students are experiencing increased financial burden as tuition increases and other economic issues arise. 

Yes, ramen noodles and PB&J may fill a student’s stomach on a low budget; after all, a calorie is a calorie. However, these ‘meals’ are hardly nourishing. We need substantive nutrients to thrive and grow. College students experiencing food insecurity are linked to poor academic performance and a lower graduation rate, meaning low-income students who already face significant barriers have to fight even harder to keep up with their more privileged peers.

While programs aimed at reducing food insecurity exist in Michigan, and nationally, they are often tailored toward families and employed singles. For example, most students would have to work at least 20 hours per week and/or receive no family contribution towards their education (among other qualifiers) to be eligible for SNAP, which often automatically disqualifies many low-income students. Even for those who are eligible, the enrollment process can be daunting for those adjusting to the collegiate lifestyle and may still need to gain financially savvy skills to access them. 

“Food insecurity on our college campuses is a shocking reality, and too many students are trying to learn on an empty stomach,” Rep. Jenn Hill, D-Marquette, told me. “We have to remember that the success of (Michigan’s) Upper Peninsula is tied directly to the success of our students and that many of those students are financially independent adults. We can’t allow our region to be held back by a failure to meet basic needs…the state has a responsibility to act, and I was proud to introduce legislation addressing the issue.” 

I am a member of the Spartan Food Security Council (SFSC) at Michigan State, an organization that took action to address a need in our campus community. SFSC has been working with Swipe Out Hunger and Michigan legislators to pass the Hunger Free Campus Act, which declares Michigan’s intent to take food insecurity on campus seriously and establishes steps towards alleviating needs on campus. It ensures that all Michigan campuses have funding to open or support a food bank on campus, and designates a staff member on campus to spread awareness about the basic needs programs and resources available.

Representative Julie Brixie, D-Meridian Township, said, "The legislature took action this year to provide free breakfast and lunch to every K-12 student for the first time because we know students don’t have the same opportunities and outcomes in school when they’re going hungry…We shouldn’t leave any students behind, including those in college, which is why I’m excited about Hunger Free Campus. It levels the playing field for everyone and ensures students can focus on learning instead of worrying about where they will get their next meal.”

Hunger Free Campus hopes to change the state of food insecurity on college campuses and reduce student inequality. No hardworking Michigander looking to gain an education should ever have to sacrifice their meals to pay tuition. The Hunger Free Campus Act is one step closer to an equitable future. I want to live in a state that sees inequality and assumes the job of clearing away the barriers that enforce it. This legislation is a significant step towards meeting all college students' basic needs.

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