Food insecurity has become more of a problem, for more people, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s something many don’t want to talk about.
Graduate Students have a lot on their plates. They teach classes, grade exams, and often juggle family, school and part time jobs, as they work to complete their advanced degrees. But what’s missing for many is enough food on the table. Anurag Mantha is working on his PhD in civil engineering at Virginia Tech.
He says, “Improving food security amongst students in college campuses is a challenge nationwide.” He knows because he faced that very shortage himself at one point in his studies.
“Having seen some of my friends and colleagues, in both, graduate school and undergraduate programs at Virginia tech, I knew that it was an issue” but it wasn’t clear to him, how widespread the problem is, until he read a report by Virginia Tech Associate Professor Ralph Hall, who teaches in the School of Public and International Affairs.
Hall completed a study in 2019 that showed more than one in three grad students at Tech didn’t get enough to eat every day.
Grad students live in a world of data driven answers, and for Mantha, this finding put actual numbers to what was once a vague feeling, a pit in the stomach. So Mantha decided to do something about it. He took a page from one of the projects he’d worked on, the Flint Michigan contaminated water crisis, and applied what he’d learned in that situation to what he was facing in this one. Mantha was part of the team studying and testing the water, which ultimately confirmed that there was in a fact a problem.
“I was tasked with calling residents and letting them know that, Hey, there is a problem (with your) water and you should probably stop drinking the water.”
But this was early on, when city officials were denying there was problem with the water. Mantha says, residents told him they could not afford to buy the necessary 20 dollar water filter. Mantha knew from the data his team was collecting, that the water was not safe to drink, so he began buying water filters, himself, on Amazon and sending them to the homes of the people he’d warned.
“My advisor finds out about it because one of the Flint residents contacts him to thank him for the filter thinking that it was, he who sent that filter. So, then my advisor comes to me and he asked me what was going on and I tell him.
Mantha’s advisor is Dr. Marc Edwards, who has been crusading for clean water for decades. “And so, he gives me his credit card at that moment and says for from now on, buy filters off of my credit card for the short term and find a long-term solution for this.”
Part of Mantha’s short term solution was creating a GoFundMe campaign for people in Flint with contaminated water. He says it was the first documented relief effort there. So, like a conscientious grad student, he repeated his first experiment, again launching a GoFundMe campaign, this time, to attract donations for food security for students at Virginia Tech.
“We have been overwhelmed both by the (financial) contributions from the community and the support that they have shown, but also in the number of requests that we have received." And that was before the pandemic. They went from a couple requests a week, to five a day by mid-March.
“I think a lot of them are skipping meals. I think a lot are just living as bare minimum as possible and not eating nutritiously," says Lisa Matthews-Ailsworth, an advisor in the Dean of Students Office at Virginia Commonwealth University. "Today, I had a student who was talking about how they needed funding to help with food. And, I said, have you ever thought about going to a food bank? They weren't interested at all. They didn't think they were that bad off.”
That is a common theme, according to research on food insecurity. And as tough as it is for native-born students to find ways to cope with food insecurity, it’s even more challenging for international students studying in the U.S.
Byron Hughes is Dean of Students at Virginia Tech. “What we know is that our international students, both undergraduate and graduate, but especially graduates, are not able to get assistance through federal programs and even some of our state and local programs that exists for issues like this.”
About 30% of graduate students there are international students.
Hughes is part of a task force working on finding solutions to what still is a hidden problem. He points to what may be a stereo type of the ‘broke college student’ and the cliché that 'all college students get hungry, "but you don’t really see the real and present problem."
Not until you see the extensive report on the topic: Virginia Tech Food Access and Security Study authored by Ralph Hall, Shyam Ranganathan, Jessica Agnew, Maria Elisa Christie, Gary Kirk, Christian Lucero, Susan Clark, and Thomas Archibald.
Hughes says part of why the problem has been hidden in plain sight., “You don't really notice it. You don't really pay attention to it because you probably think, ‘Oh Well, ‘all college students get hungry.’ Everyone talks about the broke college student and you kind of feel like a little bit, that's just kind of a norm for folks. And I think what this task force will do is we'll say, Hey, it's, it's happening.”
Hughes says a plan to address the problem is expected by the fall.
Meantime, the GoFundMe Campaign that Anurag Mantha started with friend and colleague, Courtney Steele, is in full swing. It’s raised more than $35,000 including a $5,000 contribution from Kroger. Students in need get gift cards to the grocery store chain.
Due to the pandemic, transactions are now made online, no face to face contact and no stigma attached. And in this way, COVID-19 has perhaps made things a bit easier for students who need food to get it, because the biggest barrier for most is not being comfortable asking for help.
***Editor's Note: Radio IQ is a service of Virginia Tech.