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Biology major addresses food insecurity on campus

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Senior biology major Aleah Reaza said some students don’t go to food banks because of the stigma, during a presentation last month of her research on food insecurity among University of La Verne students. / screenshot by Jacob Barriga

Senior biology major Aleah Reaza said some students don’t go to food banks because of the stigma, during a presentation last month of her research on food insecurity among University of La Verne students. / screenshot by Jacob Barriga

Jacob Barriga
Staff Writer

More than half of the University of La Verne students who responded to a recent survey on food insecurity said they sometimes skip meals, and two-thirds said they couldn’t afford to buy enough groceries. 

The survey, taken among 63 University of La Verne students – who regularly or occasionally used the Leo Food Pantry, the on-campus food bank – was conducted during spring semester 2020, by senior biology major Aleah Reaza for her senior project. 

Reaza shared her findings with a virtual audience of 30 during a recent campus presentation via Zoom.

Food insecurity, which stems from a lack of financial stability, can affect mental health, academic performance, and the social lives of college students, Reaza told her audience last month. 

Reaza’s survey was conducted through the Leo Food Pantry email list– of 110 monthly users and 11 walk-up users. Among 63 student respondents, 39 reported skipping meals, and 44 said they couldn’t afford the groceries they needed monthly. 

Reaza’s survey mirrors state and national trends.  According to the California Student Aid Commission, in 2019 about one-in-three California college students experienced food insecurity.

According to the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice, the problem has only gotten worse since the start of the COVD-19 pandemic. 

Reaza said she was inspired to do this research on campus after working for the non-profit XO Donations, an organization she started in early 2019 with other college students to bring essentials to needy families. Through this work, Reaza said she came in contact with families who were either homeless or on the verge of homelessness struggling to get by every day. 

Reaza wanted to see how her fellow students may be affected the same way. 

“I have seen some people really struggle with food insecurity, so my mentor and I thought it would be a good idea to see how food insecurity affects students at the University,” Reaza said.

Reaza’s study also found: 

  • More than 50% of participants are bound to their budget and cannot afford to buy food when their initial food supply runs out;
  • More than 50% of the participants have to skip meals or reduce meal size to get through the month;
  • More than 50% of the participants reported food insecurity as having had a negative impact on their academic performance.

Reaza said she wants the University to do more to provide relief to those in need. 

She suggested a comment box, which would allow students to get things off their chest without necessarily having to talk to anyone. She believes this could help relieve some mental stress caused by financial stress and food insecurity. 

As of right now, about 110 people use the on-campus food pantry each month. 

Though there are probably many more ULV students who suffer from food insecurity, which research finds leads to a decline in academic performance.

Reaza offered additional suggestions for how the University can provide assistance to those in need.

“My first suggestion would be a grocery and recipe class that would take someone’s budget and help them create a grocery list, and can show them some meals they can make for the month,” said Reaza. 

Reaza said that through classes like this, students can learn how to budget their funds better and can get through the month easier. 

Even with the resources available, such as the food bank, there is a stigma that prevents people from being comfortable with receiving the help they need, Reaza said. She added that students also might not reach out for help because they feel as if they are overreacting to their own struggles with food and finances. 

Zandra Wagoner, university chaplain and assistant professor of philosophy and religion, works with student volunteers for the pantry, and they have taken some steps to counter the stigma and invite students to use the pantry if needed. 

“We have worked on promoting the pantry and changing the stigma of its use,” Wagoner said. “We have done some events and other advertisements to try and get people to come and see the pantry in case some are in need.”

Sarah Rodman-Alvarez, director of the Lewis Center for Well-Being and Research, said they are also trying to provide better and healthier options for students who use the Leo Pantry teaming up with local gardens and applying for grants that can provide the university with its own farmer’s market.

“The idea is to have community-supported agriculture in which we find a local farm that makes farm boxes in hopes that we can supplement the costs of these resources,” Rodman-Alvarez said. “And we want to provide availability and create a culture of good food on campus.”

Rodman-Alvarez said the University applied for a grant to execute this plan, however since the pandemic hit, the application was put on hold and the school must wait until it returns to normal business.

“We have to think a few years in advance and stay positive,” she said. “Creating that healthy environment and spirit of togetherness is something the university is striving for in the future.” 

Jacob Barriga can be reached at jacob.barriga@laverne.edu.

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