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Feeding a need

How the Mount Wellness movement is tackling one of higher education’s biggest issues: food insecurity

April 8, 2019

“Worrying about food is one of the most stressful things for a college student,” says Liliana Ruiz ’20, peer wellness advocate.
“Worrying about food is one of the most stressful things for a college student,” says Liliana Ruiz ’20, peer wellness advocate.

By Phillip Jordan

Liliana Ruiz '20 is one of six siblings, all raised by a single mother. A single mother who cleaned houses, watched other people’s kids, drove school buses, city buses and limos — all to provide for her children. The family used food stamps often. Still, Ruiz remembers plenty of times at the end of the month when there was little money left for food, and dinner would be a hamburger from McDonald’s.

When Ruiz entered Mount Saint Mary’s University in the fall of 2016, she had financial aid that helped her pay for tuition, books and housing. But despite working a part-time job, food became an issue again. 

“Worrying about food is one of the most stressful things for a college student,” Ruiz says. “Food is what gives you energy to get things done. You need that energy. You have classes, you have a job, you have other activities. You can’t avoid life. But it’s distracting when you’re hungry. You can’t focus in class. Or your stomach’s growling and you’re embarrassed. You’re hungry and you’re stressed.”

Thankfully, she discovered she could apply for CalFresh food assistance as a student. CalFresh is California’s distribution arm of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). SNAP provides financial support for families or individuals who are food insecure — who lack the means to access enough affordable, nutritious food like fruits, vegetables, lean meats and high-fiber offerings.

CalFresh approved Ruiz for a $192 monthly food stipend.

“There’s no shame in asking for help in reaching your goals,” she says. “This is just another resource to help me be healthier and to succeed in college.”

Food insecurity

Ruiz’s story is not unique. The L.A. County Department of Public Health reports that 12.3 percent of U.S. households are food insecure and unable to afford or access nutritious food. The percentages are even higher on most college campuses. As a growing number of lower- and moderate-income students access college, national and statewide surveys have found that anywhere from 36 to 42 percent of students may be experiencing food insecurity.

Students at the Mount are no exception. In 2016-2017, the University conducted an anonymous wellness needs assessment to help provide direction for its Mount Wellness movement. One of the most eye-opening discoveries: Thirty percent of responding students reported experiencing food insecurity on a monthly basis.

The finding gave the University’s nascent wellness movement a new imperative: to ensure that students have access to the nutrition they need to thrive. Over the past two years, Mount Saint Mary’s Eat Green initiative has attacked the issue of food insecurity head-on, cultivating partnerships with experts in the field, bringing new resources to campus and training student leaders to assist their peers.

Alison Halpern, the Mount’s wellness manager, is a registered dietitian and certified health education specialist. She notes that the true percentage of food insecure students on campus might be even higher. Too often, students won’t admit when they’re hungry, out of pride or for fear of being stigmatized. 

Indeed, food insecurity can undercut students’ emotional and psychological wellbeing as much as their physical wellness. It can also derail students’ educational aspirations. A report examining food insecurity on college campuses, published by Bon Appétit — MSMU’s food services vendor, which operates more than 1,000 cafés nationwide — confirms that food insecurity has direct ties to poor student outcomes, including “being distracted in class, poor mental health, lower grades, dropping a class or discontinuing one’s education entirely.”

“It’s on us to reach out and help our students meet their basic needs,” Halpern says.

Farmers markets on campus are complemented with healthy food tastings, demonstrations and cooking classes throughout each month.
Farmers markets on campus are complemented with healthy food tastings, demonstrations and cooking classes throughout each month.

 Connecting students to fresh food

That’s why, starting in the fall of 2017, the University began partnering with Westside Food Bank to bring in healthy, free food that could help supplement students’ diets.

“It was pretty clear to me that Mount Saint Mary’s was really ahead of the curve compared to a lot of other colleges out there,” says Bruce Rankin, executive director of Westside Food Bank. “For starters, they were really listening to their students. The Mount had already done the best needs survey I’ve seen, so we could see right away that the need was there. And they were being really thoughtful about connecting all these different health needs — food, sleep, exercise. It was really impressive.”

The University also has a unique distribution plan for the donated produce. Sports & Wellness staff and peer wellness advocates — student ambassadors of the wellness movement who are dedicated to improving the health and wellbeing of their peers — set up the food at monthly farmers markets on each campus, showcasing fresh, seasonal fruit and veggies in wooden crates and baskets on checker-cloth tables. Students also get recipes and tips on how to make easy meals and snacks using the produce. The farmers markets are complemented with healthy food tastings, demonstrations and cooking classes throughout each month.

All told, since the partnership began Westside Food Bank has distributed more than 17,000 pounds of produce — much of it rescued from local restaurants before it goes to waste.

 “The Mount was the first partner organization we’ve worked with to supply this farmers market setup,” Rankin says. “Those markets are fun and they appeal to the students. To anyone, really. That was a smart idea that a lot of other colleges and organizations could follow.”

Even better: Given that
95 percent of MSMU students receive some level of financial aid, and that 70 percent of MSMU students are eligible for federal Pell Grants, Westside Food Bank could donate enough food to the Mount to open the farmers markets to all students. This is especially important because making the farmers markets open to all ensures that food-insecure students won’t be singled out — giving them more confidence to access healthy food at a fun, community event. Also, the Mount Wellness needs assessment revealed that less than 11 percent of all MSMU students ate at least four servings of fruits and vegetables each day.

Connecting students to resources

To empower more students to access CalFresh funding, the Mount has launched a student-led CalFresh outreach program across both campuses. Thanks to a partnership with one of the leading experts in the field, the program is built for success.

The Center for Healthy Communities, based at California State University, Chico, is a statewide authority on nutrition education, food security, and programs and policies that address the needs of diverse populations. The Center receives federal and state support to promote CalFresh, and has partnerships with nearly 50 community colleges and public universities across the state.

In January, Mount Saint Mary’s became the first private university in the state to partner with the Center.

“The Mount is a pioneer,” says Brandi Simonaro, a program manager with the Center. “These resources and support should be available on all campuses. There are students dealing with food insecurity everywhere. We were really excited that Mount Saint Mary’s broke that barrier and showed up to the table. You’re setting the bar for other private colleges and raising expectations for how all students should be treated. And you’re establishing best practices for others to follow.”

Back in January, Simonaro led a daylong training for staff and students, including the University’s peer wellness advocates.

“I see a lot of people struggling with things that I used to struggle with,” Liliana Ruiz says. “I want to help others follow that same journey of wellness that I’m on, whether that’s helping another student apply for CalFresh or helping someone figure out healthy ways to manage stress.”

Peer wellness advocates like Ruiz are now on hand at each month’s farmers markets to talk with other students about CalFresh, and they’re also available on a drop-in basis at Chalon’s Wellness Office. Students and staff from MSMU’s Student Programming and Commuter Services office will soon receive the training, too. The Mount’s goal is for these trainers to help students submit applications for CalFresh assistance.

The effort will go a long way toward the University’s overarching Mount Wellness goals because if students are eating well, they’re also more likely to sleep well, exercise more and cope better with stress.

“Our students know that college is a privilege and an enormous opportunity,” says Halpern, “and they go to great lengths to pursue their dreams. Too often, though, they put school before their basic needs, whether that’s food, sleep or otherwise. It’s our responsibility to show them it doesn’t have to be that way. That’s where our culture of wellness truly begins.”

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