Davis Plays Major Role in UC Effort to Address Food Insecurity Among Students

cans of food stacked on a shelf
Soups are among the nonperishable foods offered at The Pantry on campus. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis photo)

As some UC Davis students using the campus food pantry swipe in with their student identification cards, they are helping the campus and the University of California to understand and address food access and insecurity among college students.

The pilot project — tracking participating students’ use of The Pantry in response to texts about the availability of fresh produce — is part of a larger UC Davis effort. The campus has recently assessed what programs exist to help its students in need and what else may be needed, and it is laying the groundwork for ongoing UC systemwide research on the issue.

UC Davis is also taking steps to enhance information and increase student awareness about resources to address their needs and to expand facilities for health and nutrition education programs.

Part of Global Food Initiative

UC Global Food Initiative logo

The UC Davis activities are part of the UC Global Food Initiative that is marshalling systemwide resources to address how to sustainably and nutritiously feed a world population expected to reach 8 billion by 2025. One of the initiative’s three pillars focuses on food security and access at the campus level.

The results of the UC Davis research on existing programs and unmet needs has contributed to UC's Student Food Access and Security Study — also including the findings of a separate survey of nearly 9,000 UC students — to be discussed at the UC Board of Regents' committee on educational policy on Thursday, July 21.

Through the UC initiative, the campus was awarded an initial grant of $75,000 last year and then more than $300,000 of the $3.3 million total that UC President Janet Napolitano recently made available for work on the issue in 2016-17 and 2017-18.

‘A very young area of research’

Timo Rico, executive director of the Center for Student Affairs Assessment at UC Davis, is facilitating the campus research.

“It’s a very young area of research as it relates to undergraduates,” he said. Rico added that interest in the issue has been heightened by growing concerns about the ability of financial aid to meet the needs of some students.

The center's assessment found 69 campus resources, including the dining halls and retail outlets where students could find food — free or otherwise — or help to pay for it.

However, focus groups and interviews showed that many students who were food insecure were unaware of most of the food resources available on campus. "Some had heard of The Pantry but hadn't visited," said Mayte Frias, senior research analyst at the assessment center. "Building awareness became a major focus of our work this year as a result."

Some of the grant is going toward revising and building awareness about the Aggie Food Connection website that helps students in need know where they can find assistance, and Student Affairs is preparing to roll out a marketing campaign this fall.

Other funding will be used to support The Pantry and programs like Fruit and Veggie Up! as well as to expand kitchens used for health and nutrition education.

Texts alert to availability of produce

Student Affairs has already introduced a voluntary swipe card system at some student facilities to monitor usage and improve services. In the pilot project at The Pantry, a sample of randomly selected undergraduates have been invited to sign up for periodic phone text messages to let them know when fresh produce and perishables will be available there. If those same students go to The Pantry, a voluntary swipe of their AggieCard can help researchers gauge how phone text messages might influence the use of the resource.

The center's assessment team will also recommend a preliminary research agenda for use by all campuses, develop a sustainable plan for ongoing research and establish a data repository on the subject. They also provided peer review for the larger UC survey.

Survey of 9,000 UC students

Hundreds of  UC Davis students already helped the larger UC effort when they responded in spring 2015 to the first UC food insecurity survey of nearly 9,000 students across UC’s campuses.

According to the survey, 19 percent of UC students indicated they had "very low" food security, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines as experiencing reduced food intake at times due to limited resources. An additional 23 per cent were characterized as having "low" food security, defined as reduced quality, variety or desirability of diet, with little or no indication of reduced food intake. The study also found that 57 percent of food insecure students experienced food insecurity for the first time.

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