Realizing hunger and food insecurity at Portland State

Research conducted by the Portland State School of Social Work involving the issue of food insecurity with students found that approximately 40 percent of students in the SSW alone are food insecure.

The United States Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as “a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.” The USDA labels ranges of food security into four distinct categories: high food security, marginal food security, low food security and very low food security.

Research still needs to be done to obtain a figure for levels of food insecurity with students outside of the SSW program at PSU.

“We think that this number is generalizable to the broader PSU student body, but that actual research hasn’t been done,” said Stephanie Brockett, a graduate of the Masters of Social Work program, in an email.

Brockett said that the SSW became aware of food insecurity through class discussion when students spoke up about their struggles and put the issue of food insecurity on the program’s radar.

Brockett said that food insecure students also tend to be involved in other complicated and complex personal problems and responsibilities.

“Most students who experience food insecurity or hunger are also dealing with other challenges. The students that were identified as food insecure in our study were more likely to be people of color, first generation college students, living in challenging situations, etc.,” Brockett said.

Combatting Insecurity

The Associated Students of PSU have maintained a campus food pantry for years that provides a free resource for students to get access to nonperishable foods and hygiene items.

When Pam Campos, outgoing director of Las Mujeres, student-trustee of the PSU Governing Board of Trustees and food insecurity activist arrived at PSU, one of the first things she did was volunteer at the food pantry.

“When I hear food insecurity I take it quite literally as the reality of not having food, or inability to access food or being able to purchase food, healthy or otherwise,” Campos said in an email.

Campos said that she was made more aware of food insecurity by witnessing some of her peers depending on catered campus events for food “I know the current food pantry coordinator [Kathleen Steppe] of ASPSU has been working tirelessly and substantially improved our food pantry services and accessibility. A communal campus support will be necessary to institutionalize and continue the positive gains [Steppe] and her team have brought forward.”

Currently, Steppe is working to increase pantry offerings and is also looking to extend and define areas for volunteers.

“More information about potential volunteerism opportunities, contests and beyond are being formulated now [and] throughout the month of August and are slated to be posted (end of August) as we move closer to fall term,” Steppe said in an email.

Steppe also created and posted a two-page promotional piece for the ASPSU website that clarifies access questions and also addresses the educational purpose of the food pantry in its manifesto, stating that there should be no stigma for those needing help from the pantry.

“I am pleased to report we have collectively made great strides since Jan. 31 of this year,” Steppe said.

Meeting notes from a May 14 food insecurity meeting stated that PSU’s food pantry is insufficient due to not being full, not being regularly manned and inaccessable to students. As PSU moves to more online classes, students are also made to pay for services like the food pantry, which they can’t access.

Brokett said that the PSU food pantry, though important as a gesture, is a temporary solution for a much greater problem to be solved.

“Food pantries are Band-Aid solutions to complex, systemic challenges,” Brockett said.

Brockett said that one solution to food scarcity lies in closer partnership with the Oregon Food Bank. Another step in eradicating hunger on campus is expected as activists and advocates work with the Oregon Legislature to expand Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program qualifications and benefits.

“I hope that students will be responsive to the struggles of their fellow students. I think the uphill battle will come more from administration and larger community initiatives,” Brockett said.

Brockett suggested that community initiatives could be events, such as campus organizational partners working together for community gardens, student soup kitchens, meal planning services and cooking classes.