Vakil: Students need to have access to healthier, inexpensive food


Caroline Vakil, Columnist

I know what it’s like to go to class hungry. No, I’m not talking about the kind of hunger you get when you know you’ve skipped out on breakfast in the morning and are frantically running to get to your 9:30 a.m. class on time.

I’m talking about the kind of hunger you get when you’re anxious about when your next meal will be. I’m talking about the kind of anxiety you get when you’re doing mental math at the grocery store about how much you’re willing to spend just to have some healthy produce around in your dorm room.

It’s not a choice, it’s a fear and a source of stress that I’ve experienced both at Northwestern and at the University of Illinois, where I studied as a freshman.

It’s the kind of gnawing pain you get in class when you have to skip a meal because the grocery store nearest to Illinois is a bus ride away and eating out is expensive.

Because I cannot afford the NU meal plan, I work in a kitchen on campus two nights a week to receive free lunches and dinners throughout the week. Each work shift runs about an hour and consists of me washing dishes, taking out the trash and helping the chef when needed. Although sometimes buying food can be a source of anxiety, working at a kitchen has been helpful in relieving much of the stress I first felt when I arrived at college. It’s also allowed me to save money for my books for classes and other materials.

Food insecurity is an issue faced on a day-to-day basis for many college students across the country. Often, these students have to make the difficult choice between buying books for school or budgeting that money for food. And it feels like no matter which option you choose, you’re still losing something.

Although budgeting money for food has become less stressful for me than it once was, it highlights the fact that students need access to inexpensive and healthy food. As college students, we should be spending our time participating in clubs, hanging out with friends and making the most of our four years in college. The last thing we should be worrying about is when our next meal should be or if we can even afford our groceries for the week.

More importantly, we can’t learn if we’re hungry. Focusing in class can be incredibly difficult when we’re preoccupied by the sound of our growling stomachs. Studies have also shown that our cognitive, emotional and social functioning can be inhibited when we skip a meal. Simple things like reading and memory retention become chores rather than effortless actions when we don’t have the proper nourishment.

Although Evanston provides many opportunities to get healthy and inexpensive food from nearby grocery stores like Jewel-Osco and Trader Joe’s, there are also things NU can do to fight this issue.

Having the money to buy food is incredibly important, but it is also crucial for the food to be readily accessible to students. Dining hall hours could be expanded and C-Stores could be made more accessible to both on-campus and off-campus students by promoting the groceries and snacks they sell. They could also be better stocked with more and cheaper options in terms of both produce and meals. By maintaining consistent hours and promoting the resources offered in the dining halls, students can be more food secure by knowing better the options available near them.

For students living off campus, it also wouldn’t hurt for grocery stores and have places like Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods to offer a WildCARD discount to students who choose to buy food there. Something as simple as a discount can help alleviate the struggle some students face in juggling living expenses and materials for school.

Learning about the resources available to me while in college has helped me better deal with the issue of hunger. But there is still room to better serve food insecure students at NU and elsewhere. No one deserves to go to class hungry and there are things our community can do to continue alleviating this problem.

Caroline Vakil is a Medill sophomore. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.