Feeding minds and bodies: Programs help Dartmouth students who face food insecurity

  • "Where did you get your avocado?" Maleah Wenzel, a junior psychology major, asks Jennie Harlan, a junior environmental studies and Native American studies major, as they both study in the Native American House at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., on Tuesday, May 7, 2019. Wenzel, a first-generation college student from Alaska, has to ration her meal plan and take advantage of as much free food as she can to stay adequately fed throughout the year. "This is not a real meal," said Harlan. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Andrew Sosanya, a junior physics and political science student, left, eats in the Class of ’53 Commons with his friend Aidan O'Day, a senior behavioral economics and philosophy student, at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., on Tuesday, May 7, 2019. The dining hall is all-you-can-eat after one meal swipe, so Sosanya tries to get as much as he can while there. The first-generation college student from New Jersey was also on campus during the term breaks when the dining options were closed, and he had to rely on free meal programs from the First-Year Enrichment Program and the Office of Pluralism and Leadership. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/27/2019 9:33:26 PM

HANOVER — Maleah Wenzel, a junior at Dartmouth College, has four different leftovers in her fridge. There’s the free Thai and Indian food from two public events, a chicken bowl from a dining hall and a take-out container from the Class of ’53 Commons, the college’s major all-you-can-eat dining hall.

The leftovers are all a part of how Wenzel, who is from Alaska and is the first person in her family to go to college, manages to stay fed during the term while using her meal plan as frugally as possible.

At Dartmouth, students living on campus pay between $1,835 and $2,085 for a fixed amount of meal swipes and “dining dollars” every term. The leftovers allow Wenzel to get more than one meal out of a meal swipe, and the food from lectures and events allows her to save money on her meal plan.

Although a New York Times analysis of data for the class of 2013 found that about 20% of Dartmouth students come from the top 1% of the income distribution, the college also has a number of students from families on limited incomes, and many of them struggle to find a reliable and nutritious source of food during the term and when staying on campus between semesters.

Dartmouth offers financial aid to almost half of undergraduate students — the full “sticker price” to attend Dartmouth next year will be almost $74,000 — but the aid doesn’t cover all of their costs while in Hanover.

The free food events are essential, said Andrew Sosanya, a junior at Dartmouth who is also a first-generation college student. He estimated that he plans on attending about three events a week, though that becomes difficult when there are stretches of time without any free food events around campus.

Wenzel added that attending so many events, most of which take at least an hour, is especially difficult when she is also juggling her course load and a part-time job.

According to Sosanya, who is from New Jersey, students receive financial aid in their accounts and then choose a meal plan. However, there’s an incentive to choose cheaper meal plans so that that money can be refunded or spent on other expenses.

Wenzel said she considers herself lucky. The scholarships she receives outside of her Dartmouth financial aid allow her to choose a generous meal plan. But that also means trying to strike a balance between buying some food for her friends, who run out of dining dollars by the end of the term, while trying to stay full herself.

It’s an issue that has attracted attention within higher education and at other elite institutions.

According to a recent survey by Temple University, 45% of student respondents from over 100 institutions had been food insecure in the last month. Last December, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology started a meal swipe sharing program and two years ago, Columbia University opened a food pantry.

Dartmouth has similar programs, though most of them target the students who stay on campus between semesters, and are spearheaded by different departments and organizations.

One recent initiative is a food shelf for Dartmouth students who need the help, which Dominique Walton, a clinical services coordinator at the college, started after she learned that undergraduate and graduate students were struggling to find food.

The food shelf, which holds canned goods, pasta, peanut butter and other staples, relies on donations and is intentionally located in the basement of Dick’s House, which holds such services as Safety and Security and the infirmary, for privacy, Walton said.

The food shelf opened last November as the Dartmouth Student Assembly happened to be working on a report on food insecurity which recommended just that. Nicole Knape, a senior and the vice president of the student assembly, said the issue of food insecurity had come up over and over while she and the student assembly president Monik Walters had been campaigning.

A few weeks ago, the Dartmouth student assembly announced a program to give out $25 vouchers for food insecure students to use at the Hanover Co-Op Food Stores. Within three hours, all 100 vouchers were claimed.

In particular, low-income students are challenged for food on campus between semesters, when most dining halls are closed and the meal plans are no longer in effect. Many low-income students choose to stay on campus during breaks rather than spend money to travel home.

“I would say people do eat less while they’re here on break. Definitely. That’s just a fact,” said Sosanya.

Hanover restaurants are too expensive to rely on, said sophomore Vi Nguyen, another first-generation student. That leaves either walking to CVS or the Co-Op Food Store, which is also expensive, or taking the bus to Wal-Mart in West Lebanon, she said.

Access to food between semesters received special attention four years ago when the Dartmouth academic schedule changed to include a six-week long winter break. Senior associate dean of student affairs Liz Agosto said since then, a team between the First-Year Enrichment Program and the Office of Pluralism and Leadership has “professionalized” a schedule of provided meals. Now, they aim to provide two free meals a day with groceries on the weekends for students staying in Hanover during the long break, she said, and spent about $35,000 through the two programs.

During this winter’s break, daily meals were sponsored by various departments and the housing communities.

There was also a fixed menu at the Class of ’53 commons and the Skinny Pancake available to students on financial aid.

While Nguyen, who is from Atlanta, said she appreciated the support, the meals quickly became monotonous.

Sosanya said he also appreciated how the meals during break provided a sense of community during a time when few students are on campus, adding that the program has improved since he was a freshman.

However, those with specific nutritional needs are still challenged. Wenzel has a health condition that requires her to have a high calorie and fat diet.

Otherwise, she loses weight rapidly, she said, which is stressful when trying to find certain foods like whole milk during the term or skipping meals during the interim break. The interim meals are good supplements but “just enough” on their own, she said.

“Admittedly, we’re a little constrained. We do what we can to accommodate,” said dean of undergraduate students Brian Reed, who also works with Agosto.

Several students said that having more flexible meal plans would help. Walters and Knape, from the Student Assembly, said they had also met with someone from Dartmouth Dining Services about adopting the swipe-donation program as MIT does but was told it couldn’t be implemented due to technology barriers.

While Agosto and Reed said they primarily work on providing meals over break and have limited control over Dartmouth Dining Services, they said conversations on food security are happening at Dartmouth at a higher level.

Wenzel said in her freshman year in 2016, she had no idea any programming would be available during the winter break and in preparation had started taking cereal and food from ’53 Commons.

She stored vegetables and lunch meat in her discount mini-fridge. It’s a strategy that she doesn’t hesitate to recommend to other students.

“Honestly, if I hadn’t done that I wouldn’t have had food over that break,” she said.

Amanda Zhou can be reached at amanda.c.zhou.19@dartmouth.edu.

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