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Virginia Tech makes progress improving student food security, but some say more help is needed

The Market of Virginia Tech is located at 801 University City Boulevard and provides food to students who are experiencing food insecurity. Students should contact the Dean of Students office to learn more about accessing food at the grocery-style food pantry.
Roxy Todd
/
Radio IQ
The Market of Virginia Tech is located at 801 University City Boulevard and provides food to students who are experiencing food insecurity. Students can contact the Dean of Students office to learn more about accessing food at the grocery-style food pantry or applying for other resources if they find themselves in financial need.

Across the country, many students at colleges and universities struggle to pay rent and buy enough food. In 2019, a Virginia Tech study dug into the root causes behind food insecurity among students at that university. New findings indicate that things might be improving.

Three years ago, researchers at Virginia Tech found that three in 10 students struggle with food insecurity. International students are some of the most vulnerable, partly because most of them are prohibited from earning income off campus because of their visa restrictions. First generation students and graduate students also are less likely to be able to access and afford food.

“Yes, people are struggling, for sure,” said Dickson Otieno, a PhD student at Virginia Tech. In Kenya, he led a program to address food systems and hunger. When he came to Virginia Tech, he saw many of the same issues that affect developing countries here on campus.

“I feel that rice forms a major part of most international students’ diet here. It’s the only thing you can get in large volume and then it fills up your stomach and that pushes you for the day."

Jessica Agnew was one of the researchers on the 2019 report, and she also served on a task force the university created to improve food security. “I was really impressed with Virginia Tech and how they really stepped up to show the students that they really do care. And that they were going to make this issue a priority,” Agnew said.

Food security means someone has access to fresh, healthy, and culturally appropriate foods when they need it. Food insecurity can affect people from all walks of life, for various reasons. And food insecurity can be temporary, said Agnew. “So you might be food insecure one month and then not the next month.”

Probably the biggest change that came out of the 2019 food security study came after several alumni made large donations to support the creation of a grocery-store style food pantry, known as The Market at Virginia Tech. It launched in 2020 and provides fresh veggies, chicken, and dairy to students free of charge—including many international students.

A weekly menu of some of the food given away at The Market of Virginia Tech, which offers free food to students in need.
Roxy Todd/ Radio IQ
/
A weekly menu of some of the food given away at The Market of Virginia Tech, which offers free food to students in need.

There is also an emergency fund available through the Dean of Students office, where students can apply for financial assistance up to $1000. This fund has been available for years, but Ralph Hall, one of the researchers for the food insecurity study, noted that he and other professors have begun adding information about the fund, and other resources, in their syllabi to help raise awareness.

Researchers at the university are working on a new report to look at how effective these efforts were in improving food security. It hasn’t been officially published yet, but preliminary findings show that fewer students struggled in 2021.

“The study of 2019 and the recommendations that came out really brought to light a very real issue in our community,” said Mark Owczarski, a spokesperson for Virginia Tech. “Today, we’re able to assist and help more people than we were ever able to do in the past.”

Still, others say the changes don’t fix many of the underlying issues— that some students, particularly international graduate students, like Dickson Otieno, don’t earn enough to live on.

“The rent is going up. But then we are expected to still live. You’d rather pay rent and stay hungry,” Otieno said.

The Virginia Tech graduate student senate passed a resolution this March to recommend increasing the compensation for graduate students to be more comparable with a living wage. They argue that rising housing costs, inflation, and other costs are making it harder for graduate students to meet the cost of living.

Virginia Tech did raise graduate student stipends by five percent last year, but the graduate student senate argues, this isn’t enough. In June, the University’s Board of Visitors approved an increase of 5 percent for staff and faculty, which includes graduate students.

The University also created a task force to explore if the pay for graduate students is sufficient. The recommendations from that task force are due out next spring.

Updated: September 26, 2022 at 12:27 PM EDT
Editor's Note: Radio IQ is a service of Virginia Tech.

Roxy Todd is Radio IQ's New River Valley Bureau Chief.