December 4, 2022

GUEST ROOM | Food and Power at Cornell

Print More

As a student body, we need to think about the relationship between food and power at this University. Through the lens of food, we can see the symptoms of structural racism. Through the lens of food, we can see how the University fails to effectively care for a significant portion of the student population. And through the lens of food, we can see a path forward.

Food activist Karen Washington has worked in food justice for 30 years addressing the intersecting issues of oppression, racism, health, food access and poverty in New York. Her work in food justice inspired her to coin the term “food apartheid which emphasizes how racism led to limited access to healthy food for underrepresented groups: “It’s by design not accident, she argues, that people of color are denied access to nutritious affordable food, farmland and business opportunities in the food industry.”

At Cornell, according to data from the 2019 and 2021 Undergraduate Experience Surveys, we see BIPOC students facing barriers to food security at almost twice the rate of their white counterparts. Using the data, I have created the following three charts to showcase the main barriers to food security. The percentage of students reporting the barrier often or very often causes them to eat less than they feel they need to. 

Summarizing the barriers to food security from the 2019 & 2021 Undergraduate Experience Survey. Students who reported they often or very often felt like they did not have enough to eat due to the barrier are shown here. Red lines indicate the percentage of all respondents experiencing that barrier (Created by Dylan Rodgers).

This is food injustice. Intentional or not, food apartheid is the symptom of systemic and structural racism and classism which the University is not addressing.

Furthermore, this is food insecurity. The survey data, from over 3,000 students in both 2019 and 2021, also indicates that many students feel like they do not have enough to eat very often: an average of 12.5 percent for all reasons. When we include students responding often, this percentage jumps to 26 percent. Even not considering race disparities, this is a critical issue. The administration has tried to take some actions such as the Cornell Food Pantry and Swipe Out Hunger to alleviate student food insecurity, but these efforts have not been successful according to this data. The efforts are moving in the right direction but we need more effective action. 

Through food, we can start to address not only student food insecurity and injustice, but broader issues at Cornell. Leah Penniman, a New York farmer and food sovereignty activist, has carried on the message by civil rights activist and food cooperative founder Fannie Lou Hamer that for BIPOC communities “to free ourselves we must feed ourselves” At Cornell, in the student community, there is a very different context, but we can glean from this message that we need more power in our student food system. 

The student food system is heavily influenced by Cornell Dining. Requiring students to be on meal plans for the first two years can place critical financial burdens on students whose needs are not always met by dining establishments. It is also challenging for students to get lunch on campus as there is one “swipe” dining hall on central campus but several places where students need to use their limited cash allowance. Students deserve more of a say in how Dining functions on this campus. 

The student food system is also limited by the lack of grocery stores nearby. Most large stores require long bus rides or cars to access. For students without the time or ability to transport themselves to these grocery stores, they are left with overpriced and often unhealthy convenience stores, most of which are also run by Cornell Dining. Anabel’s Grocery is a student-run nonprofit that tries to address some of the needs of the student body, but has limited resources and little support from the Cornell administration. I have been serving as a Collaboration and Education Coordinator at Anabel’s for the past two years and could not have written about this topic without support from the Anabel’s team and collaborating organizations. 

Shoppers at Anabel’s Grocery (Courtesy of Dylan Rodgers).

There are small beginnings for a student food system on the producer end. Dilmun Hill is a student-run organic farm which sells produce directly to students through farm stands, U-picks, a CSA and at Anabel’s. But, Dilmun Hill also receives very little support from Cornell and is working with highly marginalized and limited land. The Hydroponics Club received space in research greenhouses to grow food for students, available at Anabel’s too, as does the Bee Club at Cornell and the Bread Club. We need further integration of these student food producers into a stronger and more just student food system.

The Basic Needs Coalition, a newer student-led organization, demands that Cornell University ensures fair access to food, housing, health, wellness, financial aid and other basic needs for all. The Coalition needs support because access to food is a basic human need. Along with lobbying for greater support from the Cornell administration, we need to continue to build coalition, community, and student power. Bobby J. Smith II, Ph.D. ’18 recommends we simultaneously build relationships with the community in Ithaca which is also facing and combating the same issues we see at Cornell. 

Overall, this is a time to speak up and this is a time for action. From the data to the day-to-day experiences of the 1 in 10 students who are very often feeling like they don’t have enough to eat at Cornell, this is no longer an issue we can ignore. As a student body, we are responsible for taking more control of our food system and pressuring the administration to make structural changes which will ensure every student has enough to eat at Cornell. 

Dylan Rodgers is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room runs intermittently this semester.