Campus Connections: Exploring Food Security, Climate Change, and Resilience

    By Haya Thamer

Sunshine peaks through curtains of willow wisps and along the concrete path leading to Avery Residence Hall. Carolina Cupboard, UNC’s on campus food pantry, sits on the outskirts of the basketball court overlooking the field hockey stadium. Carolina Cupboard has become a staple of food security for students at UNC. It serves as an equitable access organization, providing food, hygiene products, and a hub of interconnectedness in the community. For students who work at the pantry, this is only part of a longer legacy they have set for themselves. Winter, a junior that works at Carolina Cupboard, expressed her compassionate experience with serving the student population and others in need. “Oftentimes it takes your own to really feel comfortable in getting assistance… especially when it comes to food,” she explained to me during our conversation at the pantry. Going to a food pantry, applying for government assistance, or even expressing that they could be food insecure has become almost impossible for many students because of stigma and social pressures from peers.

Food insecurity can simply be defined as having inadequate access to fresh foods at a low cost due to socioeconomic status or locality.

Upon reflection, this encounter inspired my anthropological, environmental, and geographical research on food insecurity on my college campus. Research done by the EPA states that, “Climate change is very likely to affect food security at the global, regional, and local level. Climate change can disrupt food availability, reduce access to food, and affect food quality.”  I hoped to accomplish my goal of understanding the dimensions of the effects of structural inequities and the effects of climate change on food security through formal and informal interviews conducted on UNC’s campus, along with participant observation at the Food Day event at Gillings School of Global Public Health. By doing this I wanted to study the indirect effects of climate change and climate policies on food systems and how that impacts college students’ access to affordable nutritious food. 

Commodities on Campus

Life on a college campus is often associated with beer can littered sidewalks and cup-noodles stuffed into tight drawers, where dining hall food fails us and when the end of the semester rolls around, eating out isn’t an option anymore. College campuses are also hybrids, full of various backgrounds, of identities ever evolving and changing through lived experience. “Each territory may draw on elements from diverse cultures and inflect them in a particular way. Those cultural elements used to mark territory (and identity), are also those that make it possible to  move  through  and  live  in  society  (in other  words,  they  are  your  habitus).” (Wise 2008, 12)

However, many of these flourishing hubs of interconnectedness and humanity are ruled by institutions and often reconfigured, resulting in their exploitation. That’s what another interviewee had emphasized when we talked outside of her dorm room. Selena is a sophomore first generation student who had also previously worked in various soup kitchens and community pantries prior to entering higher education. “Once you start running out of meal swipes, you’re in tough luck and you just won’t have access to anything on campus anymore.” (Aimeen 2023)

Food insecurity on college and university campuses worldwide is an issue only recently coming to life, despite being a debilitating burden especially on first generation students and low to middle income students alike for decades. “ In a study conducted in 2017, the American Association of Colleges & Universities (AACU) reports that 56% of first-generation students reported experiencing food insecurity.” A similar study was done by the AACU in regards to Low income students who often face financial burdens with the added cost of tuition, books, etc. (EduMed 2021)

Once you start running out of meal swipes, you’re in tough luck and you just won’t have access to anything on campus anymore.

Food insecurity can simply be defined as having inadequate access to fresh foods at a low cost due to socioeconomic status or locality. A problem that continues to come into question when agriculture and climate change are brought up and prices are hiked. With a changing student demographic, nutritional needs often go unmet. “These nontraditional students often experience financial obligations that can impact their ability to access an adequate amount of nutritious food for themselves and their families.” (Thompson et al. 2019) The stigmatization of being food insecure has also led most students to ignore or even actively avoid resources for mutual aid and food benefits. “Nearly 2 million students in 2016 were SNAP-eligible but did not apply or receive benefits.” (Thompson et al. 2019) 

Locality and Resilience

Exploring local food insecurity in correlation to global phenomena can be interlinked to various systems and institutions because of geopolitical and social configurations. Chapel Hill is a small town bordering the North Carolina research triangle and neighboring Carrboro, leaving it an economic intersection for its residents; most of whom are college students. One of the only relatively accessible grocery stores is a Target that lacks adequate supplies of fresh fruits and vegetables, with prices higher than regular neighborhood stores. It was a no-brainer that corporations like Target recognized the dense student population at UNC and the need for supplies, rendering it the golden opportunity for economic and social exploitation. This coupled with the fact that food accessibility can be jeopardized with changing weather patterns makes it all the more worse. “These impediments lead to increased risk for food damage, spoilage, or contamination, which will limit availability of and access to safe and nutritious food depending on the extent of disruption and the resilience of food distribution infrastructure.” (Ziska, 2014)

With constant changes in the geopolitical landscape and supply chains, commodities take on new forms. This phenomenon speaks to Anna Tsing’s ideology of the frictions and tensions that arise as movement and capitalism are prevalent. “Capitalism only spreads as producers, distributors, and consumers strive to universalize categories of capital, money, and commodity fetishism […] yet these chains are made up of uneven and awkward links.” (Tsing 2004, 4) These are all factors that vastly affect a college student’s eating habits, willingness to eat based on ethical reasons and other social pressures that impact the landscape of nutrition for college students. As these uneven and ‘awkward’ capitalist networks span across our world, UNC’s put at the heart of capitalist movement and interaction, making its students the forefront of these expedites.  “The cultural specificity of capitalist forms arises from the necessity of bringing capitalist universals into action through worldly encounters.”  (Tsing 2004, 4)

One of the only relatively accessible grocery stores is a Target that lacks adequate supplies of fresh fruits and vegetables…

But UNC’s students are resilient. Various organizations on campus have been hubs for resource distribution at no cost to students, initiatives like Carolina Cupboard, CJ’s cupboard, Campus Y, and many more have worked to provide for students in need of healthy foods in a timely manner. This is a community effort; from it I’ve witnessed an interconnectedness among businesses and student organizations. This mutualistic relationship brought about by events, allows student orgs to do what they do while bringing support to small businesses. Students who are also well versed with these issues hope to spread awareness on them and destigmatize aid. Other initiatives in neighboring areas like Carrboro also do numerous things to support students and community members. An employee of the Carrboro Farmers’ Market I met at the Gillings Food Day event broke down how the market supports local farmers. She says, “We basically provide students with the chance to double their SNAP and EBT dollars to buy more.” (Carson 2023)

UNC-Chapel Hill is rich in its campus culture and diverse student body but continues facing various developmental and supplemental issues which have created a hindrance on its student population and its mental, physical, and social wellbeing. Despite this, the role that various student orgs and off-campus initiatives play in providing UNC students with resources for success are invaluable. Continuously being a backbone of support for students’ needs and providing opportunities to give back, creating a cycle of generosity and life-giving support.