April 14, 2019

KIM | Big Red Hunger

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With the semester coming to an end with four more weeks of school left, I took a peek at how many BRBs I had left. Opening the GET app has always been a moment of tension and anticipation. BRBs, despite being just regular money labeled in special Cornell jargon, represent my special Martha’s Cafe salad money, my midday hazelnut latte money and my Chobani mango yogurt money. BRBs are special and are my resource for funding my meals on a daily basis. With the lack of dining halls accepting meal swipes, the amount of BRBs I have determines the fate of my next meals. I may love the chickpea feta salads and four different cake flavors of Okenshields, but nothing surpasses my love for Mac’s flatbreads doused in balsamic glaze or the freshly toasted ‘Green Goddess’ sandwich from Goldies.

The GET app finishes loading, and my heart drops as the ominous number lingers in my mind. Immediately, I start calculating and find that I have just enough BRBs for about four more meals at my favorite eateries. With an unlimited meal plan, I’m about to become a loyal Okenshields regular.

I’m fortunate enough to even be able to have a safe back-up plan in the case of deprived BRBs with limitless meal swipes, but for some Cornell students, a meal plan is unaffordable in the first place and food is a delicacy. With extremely high-priced meal plans and expensive meals, it’s hardly surprising food insecurity is a prevalent issue on campus.

Even beyond the unaffordability of eating on campus, students face a larger crisis of overeating and undereating. To cope with stress, some students may tend to treat themselves to more than three plates of food at the buffet-style dining halls, going in for seconds or thirds of the shrimp shumai or chocolate cake. But conversely, other students also react to stress by skipping meals. And once this toxic pattern starts, everything goes downhill, as stress eats away at students’ health and state of mind. Shamefully peering into the closed cafe or feeling too exhausted to cook a meal, students can’t afford the time or energy to feed themselves, which is an extremely concerning issue.

Other factors can also contribute to students’ poor eating lifestyle on campus, including flaws with the way the dining halls themselves are structured. Strange hours sometimes don’t accommodate a good portion of students’ class schedules, there’s a lack of dining halls accepting meal swipes, drastically limiting the options for those on meal plans and there’s a lack of availability of the nutrient information of most foods at the dining halls.

Don’t get me wrong, though. The quality of the food is notably quite amazing and the selection of food is relatively diverse, aiming to represent the multicultural community of Cornell, as well as a basic diversity of taste. I was able to smoothly transition into my pescatarian lifestyle, infinitely grateful for a large number of pescatarian options in pretty much every dining hall. I’m also always amazed and thankful for the dining hall cooks who invent new recipes and create a unique and satisfying dining experience.

The problem isn’t the food itself. It’s the access to this food. The prevalence of food insecurity might surprise some, but it’s dishearteningly real and manifests itself in the student culture. The topic of food insecurity has been a slight murmur within the sea of students, when really the issue of food insecurity requires urgent attention, whether at Cornell or on a global level.

All of these combined factors, ranging from money to academics to weaknesses in the dining hall structures, lead to food insecurity in such a shockingly comprehensive way that makes me think, “Why does it have to be like this? And what can we do to prevent it from getting even worse?” While tackling the complex and overwhelming issue of stress at Cornell may not be as straightforward and easily achievable, alleviating the amount of food insecurity and poor eating decisions is. We just need to take baby steps.

And to take the first baby step, we need to be vocal and loud about the issues we care about. If we can’t afford our next meals, let’s shout. If we find ourselves skipping lunch and dinner or grabbing our fourth plate of grilled cheese sandwiches in response to stress and academic commitment, let’s yell. We need to speak up about these things instead of speaking down and burying these issues as just another unsolvable crisis. We need to make sure that action happens on the University’s part but also on the general student body’s part in recognizing the issue and making sure everyone is able to fulfill their basic human right of being healthy.

There’s a lot we still need to do, but powerful efforts have already been made. A program created by Cornell Dining called “Swipe Out Hunger” allows students to donate their leftover meal swipes, which are given to eligible students enrolled in the Swipe Out Hunger meal plan. Students living on the West Campus meal plan can also sign up for free bagged lunches. The student-founded and student-run food pantry Bread N Butter provides free cooked meals in Anabel Taylor Hall. Raising awareness of these resources and of other free food opportunities, the massive free food GroupMe group chat also plays an essential role in increasing access to food on campus.

We’ve made immense strides in our efforts to alleviate food insecurity at Cornell to a certain extent, but there’s also something we can all do: Speak loud above the growling of empty stomachs for the protection of our very well-being.

Alexia Kim is a sophomore in the College of Human Ecology. She can be reached at alexiakim@cornellsun.com. Who, What, Where, Why? runs every other Friday this semester.