Food Insecurity is Real, Especially Amongst Our Students

Written by Akane Okumura

For college students, food is an essential fuel that not only nourishes the body, but also the mind. A nutritious and balanced meal can be a great aid to a student, not only for the strenuous struggles of their classes, but as energy for their social life.

On a campus that is as large as the University of California, Irvine there are many students who struggle to put food on the table, let alone meals that have any nutritional value. Food insecurity is an issue that is very prevalent in college all across the United States and The Associated Students of the University of California, Irvine Food Security Commissioners - Aylene Sicairos and Justine Villanueva’s mission is to create awareness toward this issue and try to allocate resources to help those in need. 

Sicairos, a fourth-year undergraduate student double-majoring in both Psychology and Education Services started off as an intern for the Food Security Commission during her second year. After joining the commission, she found a passion for spreading awareness about food insecurity and decided that she wanted to step up to do more as a commissioner. 

“I did grow up on food stamps and I was really nervous about it for a long time and being in the commission almost kind of helped me realize that there’s no need to be and I wanted to help others, reduce that stigma because I know that it becomes an issue,” says Sicairos. 

Justine Villanueva, Sicairos’ partner is a fifth year Psychology major and Medical Anthropology minor who joined the commission as an intern during her fourth year. Villanueva, who transferred to Irvine last year, was inspired to join after seeing snippets of what the commission does on Facebook. She was particularly interested in food insecurity after doing a group project at her community college. After realizing that there are terms to describe people who are struggling with food and noticing how prevalent it was, she wanted to take action to help prevent food insecurity from being an issue that college students had to constantly worry about. She was inspired on how the students themselves were willing to partake in trying to make a difference about food insecurity issues. 

What many people may not know is the fact that there is a varying degree of food insecurity levels. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, food insecurity is the limitation or the unavailability of both nutritional foods and safe foods as well as the uncertain ability to acquire nutritional food in a way that is socially acceptable. On the other hand, being food secure means that a person can readily access, at any time, foods that are both safe and have nutritional value. 

Often times college students may resort to eating instant noodles or getting fast food as a means to satisfy their hunger. For some that is all they can afford, but for others this is all that they can provide for themselves because they lack the time to prepare a proper meal. Despite  access to food, if there is not much nutritional value this can also classify a person as having very low food security. 

Research by the Global Food Initiative: Food and Housing Security at the University of California in 2017 shows that 48% of undergraduate students at UC Irvine reported having food insecurity issues. 

The Food Security Commission at UC Irvine was only created about five years ago and is relatively new compared to the other commissions on campus. Their focus is on finding both short and long-term solutions to end food insecurity. Sicairos enjoys the fact that, as a part of the commission, both her and Villanueva can collaborate to create fun and unique ways to advertise by tailoring it to the college student culture on campus such as using memes. 

One of the key initiatives of the commission this year is Zot Out Hunger. During the first and second week of the quarter, Sicairos and Villanueva along with the help of their eight intern’s booth in front of the dining commons to collect meal swipe donations. This short-term solution enables students to donate up to five swipes per quarter from their guest swipes meal count. The collected swipes will be processed by UCI Dining and allocated to students who are in need of meal swipes after they apply with the FRESH Basic Needs Hub. Students will be given a number of swipes based on their situation and these swipes can only be used within the school year that it is given in. 

What started off as a 1,000 swipe collections limit has now increased to 5,000 over the years. There is evidence that the student body is becoming more aware about issues concerning food security and Sicairos along with Villanueva hope that more students can partake in donating their unused meal swipes instead of letting them go to waste. As a long-term goal, they hope to institutionalize Zot Out Hunger by the end of the year.  This will allow students to donate their swipes at any time either through a website or an app instead of the commission collecting them at the beginning of the quarter.  

For Sicairos, the Food Security Commission has been a rewarding experience. Institutionalizing the meal swipes collection would enable them to solve the food insecurity problems on campus more efficiently. 

“It’s really upsetting that there’s students that, you know, their stomach is growling while they’re trying to study and they can’t focus or you know, like they’re just thinking about their next meal. It affects so many different levels socially too. They can’t go out with their friends because they don’t have enough and then you can become very isolated. And I know how that feels,” says Sicairos. 

Many students are afraid to seek help from others and Villanueva believes that this perspective of needing to do everything for oneself is something that the commission tries to reduce. 

“It’s like helping raise awareness to end the stigma of needing help. And I feel like that’s a very Western or individualistic culture, like perspective is you need to do everything yourself and you can’t ask for help and if you ask for help then it looks bad. But we shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help because if it’s free, why not,” Villanueva says. 

The Commission also focuses on Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week which takes place in the fall. They think of games as well as activities to catch the students’ eyes as they walk along Ring Road on campus.

Eating food is an experience.  The college culture not only calls for rigorous study during the academic year, but to also make lasting memories with friends along the way. Villanueva has expressed that eating food is an important part of a student’s daily routine because it is a factor that keeps people motivated. An empty stomach can be a distraction. The idea of being hungry can be a dark omen in the back of the head. Being uncertain and not knowing where the next meal will come from can be an additive stress. 

“Food is important to everyone, right? Besides just surviving, we should eat food to live and you know the phrase eat to live? But we should live to eat, right?” says Villanueva. 

The Food Security Commission is also focusing on smaller projects that are conducted by the interns. One of the key focuses is to make videos of different recipes based on the ingredients that can be found at the FRESH Basic Needs Hub. Many students are scared to try new recipes or do not know where to begin in terms of cooking. The commission strives to provide students education on how they can successfully use the food that they can get from the FRESH Basic Needs Hubs. 

This is also beneficial for students who only have access to the food that the hub provides. The commission hopes to provide different options on what they can do with the ingredients to not only be nutritious, but also broaden the student’s taste palette’s as well. In addition to providing more access for students, the commission is also working on getting a nutritionist to educate the Freshmen students in the dorms so that they can understand proper ways to eat. This can be beneficial especially since many students at UC Irvine live in apartments after their first year and have to provide food for themselves. 

Although Sicairos and Villanueva are graduating from UC Irvine this year they have a lot of hope for the future of the commission. They believe that more people are driven to not only learning about food insecurity issues, but also trying to make a difference. They are certain that students will continue to be passionate and continue their legacy. 

“I feel like the sky’s the limit in a way because there’s so much you can do with it,” Villanueva says.

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