Addressing Food Insecurity on Campus
Approximately 10% of students at Colorado State University experience food insecurity. In the past five years, CSU has been aggressively tackling food insecurity through the creation of innovative programs under the Rams Against Hunger umbrella, including a Meal Swipe Program for dining centers on campus, a monthly On-Campus Mobile Food Pantry, the Friday Food Bank Program, and a texting system called Ram Food Recovery that sends out alerts for food leftover from catered events. Rams Against Hunger is also positioned for emergency response, as demonstrated by the COVID-19 Food Distribution Center that was quickly established during spring 2020.
Rams Against Hunger Meal Swipe Program was one of the first of its kind developed from an economic, environmental and social justice lens to provide healthy and nutritious meals to CSU students who don't know where their next meal will come from. Launched in 2015 and completely funded through donations, including student donations of unused meal swipes, this program is sponsored by the Student Leadership, Involvement, and Community Engagement Office (SLiCE) through a partnership with Housing & Dining Services. The program provides 75 meals per semester on a student's ID card so they can swipe into any dining center on campus to enjoy an all-you-care-to-eat, well-balanced meal without the stigma of waiting in line at a food bank or having to ask for a discounted meal at the meal check station. This provides participants with healthy and sustainable choices that include fresh vegetables and fruit, whole grains, and local products rather than relying on heavily-processed foods that are often inexpensive enough for students with food insecurity to purchase. To date, the program has assisted 1,843 students.
The On-Campus Mobile Food Pantry, launched in 2017, is a partnership between CSU and the Food Bank for Larimer County that allows any person with a valid CSU ID (student, staff or faculty) to receive a box of food once a month on a campus distribution date. Volunteers staff tables with an assortment of whole grains, produce and dairy products, and organic and local whole foods to allow participants to fill a box with items of their choice. Food banks are often limited to non-perishable food but by setting the date for the mobile food pantry each month, donors and distributors can plan ahead to provide dairy as well as fresh fruit and veggies. The food bank is located on the far North end of town, making it difficult to access from campus. The mobile food distribution on campus made resources much more accessible and was a first for the food bank with campus volunteers providing the labor.
Pocket Pantries are also provided in six locations across campus as supplemental assistance between monthly Mobile Food Pantry distribution days. The six pantries distribute approximately 1,400 pounds of food per month.
During spring 2020, the university saw a sharp increase in the number of campus community members experiencing food insecurity. In response, the monthly On-Campus Mobile Food Pantry was quickly converted into a COVID-19 Food Distribution Center in the student center theater serving fresh, refrigerated and shelf-stable food four days a week in premade boxes. The distribution center opened April 23 and is currently serving four hours a day (afternoons on Monday and Thursdays and mornings on Tuesdays and Fridays). This distribution center is open to anyone with a university ID (student, staff, or faculty) and is a partnership between the Larimer County Food Bank, the Lory Student Center, and SLiCE office. In spring 2020, RamRide (a student-run volunteer service offering free rides) partnered with Rams Against Hunger to launch RamRide Food Opps to help students, faculty and staff get home from the Mobile Food Pantry. They also launched a service called Friday Food Bank to provide free rides to the food bank on Friday afternoons on weeks when the mobile food pantry is not on campus.
Started in spring 2019, Ram Food Recovery is an innovative texting program that allows students, faculty and staff to pick up food leftover from catered events on campus. When Housing & Dining Services Catering has leftover food from an event they log into a web-based system to record what is leftover, document food temperatures to follow safety guidelines, and send a text alert to registered members of the campus community to let them know what food is available and when/where it can be picked up. To further ensure food safety, Catering stays for 30 minutes to serve the food and participants bring their own clean container to reduce waste. To be added to the text alert system, participants sign up on a website and agree to follow food safety guidelines by digitally signing a waiver. Participants can take as much food as they need, and registration is open to any member of the campus community experiencing food insecurity. Rams Against Hunger also helps students navigate the federal SNAPS Benefits program by arranging 1-on-1 consultations with eligibility specialists from Larimer County. Information sessions are also hosted to help students understand eligibility and benefits. The average benefit for those who qualified through the program was $150/per month. In spring 2020, a graduate student was hired to help manage the program.
A campus survey conducted by ASCSU (the Associated Students of Colorado State University) found that 1 in 10 students at Colorado State University experience food insecurity. Broadly defined, food insecurity is “the state of being without reliable access to sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food”. Signs of food insecurity can include skipping meals and/or cutting the size of meals due to lack of financial resources, experiencing hunger but not eating, the inability to afford balanced meals, and/or running out of food at the end of a pay period. CSU recognized this issue as urgent and started the Rams Against Hunger Meal Swipe Program in 2015 to help address food insecurity. Several additional programs have been added under the Rams Against Umbrella since that range from pocket pantries to free rides to the local food bank to text alerts for leftover food at catered events. The programs serve students, staff, and faculty and are coordinated by campus offices, student and staff volunteers, and donations. New programs and services are continually added to the program as new needs and opportunities present themselves.
To decrease food insecurity within the campus community. A secondary goal of the Ram Food Recovery program is to reduce food waste from catered events (while Catering does not weigh or track food waste, they estimate that food waste has been reduced by 90%).
The Student Leadership, Involvement and Community Engagement Office (SLliCE) manages the Rams Against Hunger program with strong partnerships in the community with the Food Bank of Larimer County and partners across campus including the Lory Student Center, Housing & Dining Services, Advancement, ASCSU, RamRide, and Environmental Health Services. Students, staff, and faculty who are experiencing food insecurity benefit from the program and members of the campus community who are not experiencing food insecurity are engaged as volunteers and donors.
As one example of how Rams Against Hunger programs are developed, the creation of the Ram Food Recovery Program in 2019 involved Students in ASCSU (the CSU student government), Zero Waste Team (student-led organization) and Eco Leaders (campus housing peer-to-peer educators) working with multiple campus partners. Their advocacy resulted in a working group with representatives from SLiCE (the office that manages Rams Against Hunger), Environmental Health Services (who manages safety policies on campus), Dining Services (who has a catering unit) ASCSU and Eco Leader representatives, and members of the Housing & Dining Services Sustainability team. The working group wanted to find a way to make leftover food from catered events available for donation as it is often high-value food (whole fruits and vegetables, fresh salads, lean proteins, fresh dairy, and full entrees). The working group couldn’t identify any case studies or peers with similar programs but was able to use elements of a program from John Hopkins University as a case study. After immense research, the group decided the best approach was to change campus policy that prohibited served food being donated and then create a waiver and best practices document to make it possible to create a food recovery program without the university assuming an unacceptable amount of liability. After working with campus approvers for eight months, the Ram Food Recovery program was piloted as the newest addition to Rams Against Hunger. After a successful pilot in spring 2019, it is now a permanent program on campus. The documentation created can be viewed at [https://ramfoodrecovery.colostate.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/11/2019/01/CSU-Food-Donation-Recovery-Guidelines-2019.pdf].
Rams Against Hunger Meal Swipe Program launched in 2015 The Mobile Food Pantry began as a pilot program in fall 2017 and became a permanent program in spring 2018. The Ram Food Recovery Program was piloted in spring 2019 and became a permanent program during the 2019 summer conference season. The RamRide Food Opps and Friday Food Bank Program launched in spring 2020. The COVID-19 Food Distribution Center launched in spring 2020 as a crisis response.
The Rams Against Hunger Program is completely funded through donations. Each year, a fund drive is conducted and in fiscal year 2019 around $80,000 was raised for the program. Once a semester, SLiCE collaborates with Housing & Dining Services to host a Day of Giving where students with meal plans can donate up to two of their unused guest passes to support the meal swipe program.
Since its’ beginning, the Rams Against Hunger Meal Swipe Program and the Mobile Food Pantry have been well-received by students and Institutional Research at CSU has demonstrated that participating students have a higher GPA than students with similar demographics who do not participate in the program.
When the Meal Swipe Program launched In 2015, it served 33 students. By January 2017, over 300 students participated in the program, and today 350 students benefit each semester, all funded by donations. To date, 1,843 students have benefited from the program.
The Mobile Food Pantry served 5,564 people during its first year in the 2017-2018 academic year and increased to 6,910 people during the 2018-2019 academic year.
In its first year, The Ram Food Recovery Program hosted 78 catering event food pick-ups (averaging 23 participants per event), the text distribution list grew to 1,119 subscribers with more than 60,000 text alerts sent, and Catering reported an estimated 90% reduction in food waste.
In the first few weeks of the RamRide Food Opps, free rides were given to an average of 60 people per week.
From April 23-May 5 the COVID-19 Food Distribution Center served 655 people (exceeding in two weeks the typical monthly average for the Mobile Food Pantry).
Data collected for the Rams Against Hunger program demonstrates that participants are more likely to be racially minoritized, first generation, or Pell grant recipients than the overall student population at CSU indicating that the most vulnerable populations on campus are being served.
Student support is the driver. Without student government administering the food insecurity survey and sharing the results with university administration, the depth of the challenge and potential solutions may not have been explored. Students were very honest and forthcoming sharing their food insecurity challenges in a survey administered by students for students. Students also advocated for the Ram Food Recovery Program and it was wonderful to see student government partnering with Eco Leaders (peer educators) and several campus offices to make it happen.
Strong partnerships are key. Without a strong collaboration with the local food bank, the mobile food pantry would not have been possible. The university doesn’t have the capacity or storage space to manage a distribution of this scale. With the university providing volunteers and the food bank providing the truck and food, the mobile food pantry has been very successful.
Be willing to change policies and enter unchartered territory. University policy prohibited donating food that had been served at catered events and we couldn’t find an example of a texting system that was like what we envisioned for Ram Food Recovery. Through a great collaboration that involved multiple student groups and campus offices, we were able to change the campus policy and create a new system that has met our needs well.
Pilot programs are valuable. Particularly when entering unchartered territory, rolling out a new program as a pilot has many advantages. By starting on a smaller scale, it’s easier to collect feedback and identify issues before they get too big. It’s also easier with a limited number of people to make adjustments and change or end aspects of the service that are not working or meeting their purpose. Once the wrinkles were ironed out during pilot phases, we were able to launch the permanent programs with more confidence.
Volunteer and donation programs require oversight. While we love that Rams Against Hunger is a volunteer and donation program supported by our campus community for our campus community, we recognize that as it grows it takes a lot of staff oversight to coordinate donation campaigns and volunteers. Rams Against Hunger is not in anyone’s job description and we just recently hired our first graduate student to help manage the SNAP benefits program. We recognize the need to make the structure and staff support for it permanent to ensure long-term success.