Spring break is perhaps the most exciting time for college students. The weather finally starts to get nicer, and if it’s not, a week of class is the perfect time to escape to the beach or one’s own warm bed at home. For a lot of students, this is a perfect reality. But for some, a spring break experience that seems common is far-fetched, to say the least.
Now more than ever before, low income and first-generation college students are being admitted to prestigious universities like the University of Wisconsin. Although an increase in opportunity is always welcome, many schools are not updating their policies and aid to cater to this demographic’s needs.
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Breaks bring unique challenges. Some students, especially those who are low income, may not be able to afford to go home or may be forced to stay in the area to work. Many schools charge students to stay in residence halls over breaks, and dining halls have cut hours if any at all. For students stuck on campus, this leads to a week of scavenging for food, living off microwavable meals from convenience stores or simply going hungry.
On this front, UW can be considered progressive. At least for spring break, students who live in university residence halls could remain there free of charge. Food accessibility is another story, as only one dining hall is open throughout the majority of the week, and with limited hours. There are other options, like UW Campus Food Shed or Slow Food UW, but little information is available as to whether or not spring break changes the hours or availability of these options.
A 2015 study by the Wisconsin HOPE Lab surveys low- and moderate-income students from 10 Wisconsin colleges and universities reports that 61 percent were food insecure at some point during the school year. Nationally, this number is around 20 percent of students attending four-year institutions, and the number triples for students of color and low-income students.17.2 percent of the class of 2021 are first-generation students, and 10.8 percent are students of color. It may not always be seen, but food insecurity is detrimental to UW students, both during break and the regular academic year.
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There are many difficult effects of being food insecure in college, whether it be reduced academic performance or greater stress. But perhaps the worst is the social toll. The bonds forged from college experiences can last a lifetime. The social aspect of the Wisconsin experience is the most exciting. But when food insecure students are asked why they sometimes refuse help offered to them by food assistance programs, many report that they feel judged by and isolated from their peers because of it. UW professor of consumer sciences Lydia Zepeda said “Students in the study indicated they were very socially isolated. They couldn’t share that they were struggling because they felt shame.”
Molly Kloehn, a mental health care manager at University Health Services, finds similar reasoning with the students she works with, as food insecurity takes its toll on a student’s mental health. “Food insecurity is very present on campus but underreported because it’s something that students might not feel comfortable disclosing to peers or campus officials,” Kloehn said. Imagine that fear, shame and embarrassment being exacerbated while these students watch their peers galavant around beaches, eating and binge-drinking to excess while they are simply struggling to make it through the week.
These inequalities not only make food insecure students more aware of their situation but also what colleges make them endure because of it. UW has made valiant strides in beginning to solve the problem of food insecurity on campus, but it still exists. A perfect solution is far down the road, or maybe even nonexistent, but as students, there are things we can do to cut down on its severity. Donate to The Open Seat or volunteer at a local food bank. Stop judging people who ask for help — asking for help is braver than facing anything alone. But most of all, we must remember the wise words of Viola Davis: “Diversity is not a hashtag to be flaunted when recruiting low-income students while minimizing or even ignoring their struggles once they are students. Our behavior should reflect that.”
Abigail Steinberg ([email protected]) is a freshman majoring in political science and intending to major in journalism.