Responding to a survey put out by the Student Life Committee (SLC) earlier this term, 45.3 percent of students said that they have experienced food insecurity sometime while at Knox.
Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Benjamin Farrer designed the survey to focus in on just the first question SLC felt they needed to answer.
“The main takeaway point we were looking for is, ‘is this an isolated personalized problem, or is this a systemic widespread problem?’ and to me the takeaway point of the survey is well that question at least we can answer now,” Farrer said. “And the answer is it’s systemic and widespread.”
The survey defined food insecurity as “the lack of reliable access to affordable, nutritious food.” It then asked if respondents had experienced food insecurity, by that definition, while at Knox.
Alongside the students, faculty and staff also took the survey. Fewer people responded from these categories, with around 10 percent and 16 percent saying they had experienced it respectively. Still, not every aspect of food insecurity was covered by the survey.
“It’s not a comprehensive assessment of everything about food at Knox,” Farrer said.
Director of Campus Sustainability Debbie Steinberg invited Farrer to present the results to the Sustainability Council as well. She said that there was clearly still more work to be done on defining the exact issue but that she hoped that the Office of Sustainability could be a resource for that process and any final solutions that are proposed.
“The survey was to show that there is an issue, so then the question is how are people feeling food insecure, and I don’t think we have those answers yet exactly . . .” Steinberg said.
One advantage Steinberg said her office could provide is contact with sustainability offices at other institutions. Some of these other offices have been involved in relieving problems of food insecurity, such as by running on-campus food pantries. The Knox Sustainability Office runs a food pantry during the summer for students who stay on-campus.
“Sustainability is a three-legged stool that involves the environmental, the economic and the social. And there should be a balance of all three,” Steinberg said. “So I think that it has a direct connection to food security.”
In his presentation to faculty, Farrer explained some of the objections people might raise to the results of the survey.
He pointed out that the survey demographically underrepresented African-Americans, Latinx and male students. However, when these differences are accounted for, the percentage of students expected to be experiencing food insecurity according to the survey drops to 37.5 percent.
“Even if the survey is perfectly unrepresentative . . . 145 people is still a systemic problem. So I think even that objection doesn’t really hold water because we did get enough people answering the survey for any reasonable person to say 145 people is a lot,” Farrer said.
Farrer also tried to account for hypothetical objections that the survey did not cover any information about duration. Students were asked what years they experienced food insecurity at Knox. For all classes of students, the highest percentages reported were for those who experienced food insecurity in every year they had been at Knox.
The relationships of students to Bon Appetít was also worrying with regard to the survey. Farrer did not want any biases in that regard to affect the results of the survey.
He believed this was not the case based on the results of the open-comments section, in which only seven out of the 95 people who commented mentioned Bon Appetít. Of far more worry for respondents were issues of health and nutrition, with 26 of the open comments mentioning those issues.
Student Senate Campus Life Chair and sophomore Zane Huffman said that student concerns with not being heard had been brought to Senate and that senators themselves had experienced similar feelings. These feelings of not being listened to really stood out to Farrer.
“I know a lot of people have had issues with the management in terms of not being able to communicate their ideas or feeling like everything you say is falling upon deaf ears,” Huffman said.
Going forward, Farrer said that SLC plans to first further discuss what to do with the results of the survey. Given the sentiment that prior complaints about food management at Knox may make these issues seem less important than they actually are, he said that the first step is to listen better.
“I want the survey to be the start of changing [how students are not feeling listened to],” Farrer said. “And saying [that] one of the things we can do better immediately is listen better and improve communication between the students and everybody else involved in food.”
Another issue they could still face is the stigma attached to being food insecure. But once conversations get started and are producing solutions, SLC hopes to not just solve the problem of food insecurity but go beyond minimal expectations for our food system as well.
“Fixing the problem is not enough. I don’t want the reaction to this to be that the best we can hope for from our food system is something that is affordable and nutritious,” Farrer said.