December 10, 2020

GUEST ROOM | Food security is an essential function of Cornell University

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When University leadership developed Cornell’s reopening plan, they committed to the safety and health of the student body and Cornell employees. Largely, as it relates to COVID-19, we applaud their commitment. Unfortunately, Cornell’s dedicated attention to pandemic-related safety ignores many structural issues on campus that threaten the health and wellbeing of both undergraduate and graduate students. Access to fresh, nutritious and affordable food is one of the most glaring examples, and it is worsening because of COVID-19. 

Unfortunately, this phenomenon does not surprise the team at Anabel’s Grocery. Food security was already a concern at Cornell and campuses across the nation before the pandemic. Now, COVID-19 has only exacerbated the issue and widened the demographic of the food insecure, as students who previously would have opted for public transit or ridesharing no longer feel safe doing so, and many others have seen their economic fortunes impacted by the pandemic. Media coverage of campus food insecurity skyrocketed in 2020, including recent examples at the University of Wyoming and the University of Wisconsin-Madison

While many may falsely believe an Ivy League University like Cornell would be immune to this reality, many factors contribute to Cornell’s food security issue: the high cost of attendance and living; the lack of affordable grocery stores within walking distance to campus; and expensive transportation (i.e., parking and limited public transit).

According to Cornell’s most recent PULSE survey, approximately 30 percent of undergraduate students reported a lack of food security. This disproportionately affects communities of color: Asian (38 percent), Black (38 percent) and Hispanic (35 percent) respondents reported much higher food insecurity than their white counterparts. Cornell’s recent recommitment to addressing racial disparities on campus should make this a high priority issue for the administration to demonstrate meaningful action.

The reality of Cornell’s growing food security crisis makes the administration’s recent decision to keep Anabel’s Grocery temporarily closed and take away an affordable food source from students for the Spring semester quite troubling. When Anabel’s opened in 2017, undergraduate students made an unprecedented commitment to the store, providing $320,000 of student dollars from the Students Helping Students Fund and Graduate and Professional Student Assembly. This commitment has not wavered throughout the COVID-19 pandemic: The leadership of Anabel’s Grocery wants to provide safe, contactless pickup of affordable and nutritious groceries to all students starting in February.

In our correspondence with University officials, two primary arguments were used to justify the store’s continued closure: Not only is the store serving a non-essential function in the administration’s eyes, but its operations would supposedly counteract efforts to de-densify campus. Unfortunately, they incorrectly assess the safety of our model against today’s reality. Overcrowded bus trips to busy grocery stores increase the risk of COVID-19 exposure for students as well as the wider Ithaca community. Operating a curbside pickup service on campus will de-densify the TCAT and reduce the number of weekly trips students take downtown Ithaca. Moreover, we can still support the local food economy by purchasing from local suppliers, such as Wide Awake Bakery, Stick and Stone Farm and Greenstar Cooperative Market through our purchasing. 

The University further misunderstands the value of Anabel’s, suggesting the newly opened Food Pantry acts as a viable alternative. First, the food pantry offers a limited variety of food relative to Anabels’ offerings, particularly from a nutritional standpoint, whereas Anabel’s strives to offer choices for all students and their diets. Second, a food pantry represents an emergency intervention for community members facing hunger, not a permanent food source. At Anabel’s, we do not just believe that food is a human right, but that healthy, fresh food is a human right — and we are dedicated to creating an equitable and ecologically-sound food system for all. 

Not only does the store provide a viable alternative to the food pantry both in the type of food it offers and the community it cultivates, but it also offers substantial cost savings for students. From internal sales analyses conducted by the Anabel’s Grocery student team, students who shop at Anabel’s saved on average around 30 percent per transaction on their grocery costs relative to Wegman’s — this is before transportation time and cost is factored in, which tends to be students’ largest barrier to accessing healthy food sources; in pre-COVID times, students may otherwise have opted for ridesharing convenience, which is no longer an option.

We know that Anabel’s can reopen safely for online ordering and curbside pick up while providing an essential service to students: access to fresh, nutritious and affordable food right on campus. That is why we recently submitted a resolution to the Student Assembly outlining the store’s plan to operate safely with a request to University officials to allow us to re-open in the Spring semester. To reiterate what was outlined in detail in the Resolution, we are prepared to comply with every safety protocol required by University officials, the Tompkins County Health Department, and the NYS Department of Health, and we are committed to operating Anabel’s as safely as all other food service facilities on campus.

While the Anabel’s team is deeply committed to this issue, the students who patronize the store offer an even more compelling perspective. According to Remy Stewart PhD ’24, “I live in on-campus graduate student housing where Anabel’s is my closest grocery option, I have a physical mobility impairment that makes long distances challenging for me to navigate, and I do not have a car. I have noticed my own ability to purchase adequate food has become a significant struggle throughout this semester due to Anabel’s closure. I and many other graduate students fully support and call for the reopening of Anabel’s for the next semester.”

Stella Linardi ’22 wrote about why Anabel’s was essential to her, saying, “As a low-income student, I benefited from Anabel’s subsidized prices and ethical, sustainable practices. Their proximity to campus and reasonable prices made food much more accessible…I also benefit from Cornell’s food pantry, but food insecurity is one of the reasons I moved back to California from living off-campus at Cornell this semester. Anabel’s was one solution, but it got ripped away because it wasn’t ‘essential.’ Anabel’s was essential to me.”

Anabel’s Grocery team members are a group of undergraduate and graduate students who manage and organize Anabel’s during the academic year. Matt Stefanko ’16, co-founder of Anabel’s and Hanna Reichel ’17, board co-chair of Anabel’s, are alumni. Megan Feely is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Chelsea Lee, Ellen Park, Ryan Stasolla and Deana Gonzales are seniors in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Emily Desmond is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Comments can be sent to opinion@cornellsun.com. Guest Room runs periodically throughout the semester.