December 9, 2020

GUEST ROOM | A Call to Action on Food Equity for Students on the Ithaca Campus

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There has not been a more critical time for Cornell University to meet the needs of food insecure students. Supporting spaces like Anabel’s Grocery — a student-led grocery store on campus sourcing local fresh produce and dry goods and selling them at prices lower than or equal to Wegmans — was a step in the right direction. And yet, the University has now prevented this space from operating during the pandemic. Is access to quality food for all students not essential? 

When Student Assembly representatives vote on a resolution to reopen Anabel’s this Thursday, they should know the significance their vote will have in ensuring food access for Cornell students. The school claims that the Cornell Food Pantry which offers “free, confidential access to food and personal care items,”  is adequate in providing food to those in need. We must recognize, though, how different this resource is from Anabel’s Grocery. Anabel’s provides locally sourced, environmentally sustainable food — fresh produce, baked goods and bulk, low-processed dry goods — to students at a lower cost than grocery stores in the area. Given Anabel’s on-campus location, students don’t have to take public transport (in a pandemic!) or drive (students should not be expected to have vehicles to obtain food). Not only that, Anabel’s is an educational space where students learn about sustainable food and agriculture systems, form relationships with suppliers, navigate their self created supply chain and do food justice work in real time. The associated 3-credit course, AEM 3385: Practicum in Social Entrepreneurship, and the store itself serve as the public sphere we need to shed light on the root causes of the racial disparities in our food system. 

The impacts of these disparities are seen today through food deserts — areas with limited access to affordable and healthy food — and the adverse toll of COVID-19 on Black, Latinx and Indigenous populations. These racial and ethnic disparities don’t stop short at Covid-19 effects — they manifest as health disparities too. A diet low in sugar, calorie-dense processed foods and access to fruits and vegetables is essential to health but not available to all.  These disparities in food access are notably present on Cornell’s campus. According to the 2019 PULSE survey, when asked “how often have you eaten less than you felt you needed because of lack of money to buy food?” 19 percent and 15.1 percent of Black students responded, “very often” and “often” respectively, compared to 5.7 percent and 6.7 percent for white students. Our Ithaca campus is a microcosm of what inequality — racial, economic and otherwise — looks like in the food system. What better place to spark change through knowledge and awareness? What better place to start our ripple effect than here at Cornell?

As a school with a prominent College of Agriculture, Cornell has the opportunity to apply the relevance of agriculture and food production to the day to day lives of students. As a student with familial roots in Italian agriculture — a system in which culture and collective joy is rooted in delicious cuisine made with local ingredients — I have always felt alive and akin to the land below my feet through consumption of my daily bread. We are so connected to the food we eat, and the Anabel’s experience has allowed me to concretize that beyond myself. In nearly all of my CALS classes, it is a foundational belief that humans thrive off of proper access to quality crops. And Anabels has served as a space for me to understand how my success as an ethnically European woman is connected to the great food I had the privilege of consuming. This is a type of privilege that is overlooked, but so foundational to human existence, especially during a global pandemic, and should be accessible to all. So Cornell: Let Anabel’s provide it.

Cornell can do a better job now, by letting spaces like Anabel’s grocery operate next semester. And Cornell can do a better job in the long term by supporting spaces like Anabel’s. These spaces teach Cornellians to spark the real change and real conversation, that they want to see in the world. These spaces allow Cornellians to learn hands-on what equity and access mean within our own community and meaningfully combat the issues of food insecurity that plague the student body and nation. Cornell administrators must acknowledge this if they desire to stay committed to the needs of students and to antiracism work, because food is a basic human need.

So In the next student survey asking “What has made you resilient during this pandemic?” I’ll answer: “My ability to come together with my housemates, here in Ithaca, over a home cooked, local-grown fueled, delicious and nutritious meal.” Every student should have that same access to soul-enriching food.

Sarah Brice is a senior in the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management. Comments can be sent to [email protected] Guest Room runs periodically throughout the semester.