Written by Communications Associate, Jarea Fang
It is a common trait among college students to love free food, which is probably why free food is present at almost all campus events. While hilarious, it’s also important to consider that a college student’s love of free food may be more complicated than we think, as food insecurity is not uncommon both in and outside of the WashU community.
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food security as access by all people at all times to enough affordable, nutritious food for an active, healthy life. Food security has varying ranges of severity that may be consequential to an individual’s health.
According to a 2018 study published by Bon Appetit Management Company, WashU’s current foodservice provider, soaring tuition costs and inadequate financial aid have caused food insecurity among students to rise. St. Louis Area Foodbank also notes that 10.9% of all St. Louisans are facing food insecurity. These facts are especially sinister when many studies concur that 30% to 40% of the total food supply in the United States goes uneaten, while food remains the single largest category of material placed in municipal landfills, resulting in releases of methane gas that are devastating for the environment.
Luckily, this is not an issue that has gone unnoticed. From grassroots activism to school administration, many steps have been taken among St. Louisans to address food insecurity in our community.
St. Louis Food Share Network
The St. Louis Food Share Network is a grassroots effort by individual community members, grocery stores, and nonprofit organizations to provide healthy food to St. Louisans in need. They partner with local businesses to help redirect good food that is unsellable to consumer markets for donation so that it doesn’t end up in landfills. They have taken donations from Whole Foods, Pizza Head, Healthy Planet, Fresh Thyme, Costco, Fields Foods, and Midwest Pasta Co. and redistributed them to the public. These food shares have alternating locations, serving both North and South sides of St. Louis on different days of the week.
A food share is different from a food pantry because no qualifying factors are necessary: no proof of residency, citizenship status, or unemployment status is required to be given food. This food share network’s humble origins began in 2016, when it was operating out of the living rooms of two community houses, one on the north side of St. Louis City in Art House, and one on the south side in Dutchtown in Kinetic House. From the beginning, this project was a collaboration between the houses to bring food to their neighborhoods that experience food apartheid and don’t normally have access to fresh produce–communities populated by immigrants, people of color, lower-income folks, and the elderly.
Founded by local activists, the Food Share Network’s mission of serving fresh, local, and nutritious food is kept alive by those who benefit, then give back, then benefit again. Erik Liu, a key volunteer for the St. Louis Food Share Network, started attending the food shares six years ago and never stopped.
“I was starting a business, and because of start-up costs, I did not have the finances for fresh, healthy food,” Liu shares. “I was surviving on ramen and hot dogs, but I knew that was not a healthy lifestyle. I quickly started volunteering, and have been a volunteer ever since.”
Aside from watching the smiles on people’s faces as they shop for free, fresh food, Erik also enjoys the excitement of working with foods that are not already on his radar. “I often take food home that people are not picking up. Then I experiment with recipes from the web, and post photos and recipes on our social media platforms.”
Casey Stinemetz, who was a co-founder and resident of Kinetic House, has also been instrumental in keeping the food share alive.
“It is so important to be involved in the community in some way. We all have something to contribute, and for us to build the world that we want to live in, we all must contribute. The Food Share Network is a perfect example of a community coming together. We can all do something,” says Stinemetz. “No effort is too big or small.”
The Thomas Dunn Learning Center (TDLC), which started housing the south side food shares since the beginning of 2020, serves the St. Louis region through art, cooking, personal development, and humanities classes that are offered at a sliding scale/equity pricing model. Their values revolve around three pillars–social, economic, and environmental–and it adopted a sustainability initiative in 2014.
“The partnership between Thomas Dunn Learning Center and the Food Share Network has helped us expand our impact and operations,” Stinemetz makes sure to note. “All partnerships between community organizations promote individual growth and enhance the community’s quality of life. Today we have over 30 community partner organizations.”
“Food shares are about cooperation, not competition, between like-minded organizations and individuals,” Liu adds. “Partnership with nonprofit and community groups like St. Pias, Guardian Angel Settlement Association, Salvation Army, All Hands On Deck, and dozens of individual volunteers are vital to getting the job done.”
How WashU Addresses Food Security and Food Waste
Environmental justice describes the way social justice and environmental activism go hand-in-hand, as climate change disproportionately affects the most vulnerable populations of the world. Taking care of all members of our community, therefore, is one of the most important practices of sustainability.
The Food Security Fund at WashU is a joint effort between Dining Services and Student Financial Services to ensure all students have access to high quality, nutritious foods on campus. Students that apply are awarded meal points discreetly based on need, while others with leftover meal points at the end of the year can donate points to the Food Security Fund to give back. The goal is to address potential food insecurity on campus, as well as reduce the stigma of seeking financial assistance for food.
To ensure there is less food waste coming out of our dining halls, Dining Services also prioritizes seasonal and local food sources, while composting food scraps and leftovers. Chefs make sure to prepare food in small batches to limit waste and ensure quality, while encouraging students to take only what they need during all-you-care-to-eat events.
Claire Conroy, the special events coordinator at Dining Services, is also thankful for partnerships. “We work closely with the Office of Sustainability and their student interns to conduct food waste audits, increase composting and the use of compostables, and use food waste-sorting tents at events to compost food scraps and sort waste properly.”
Aside from what WashU is doing at an official capacity, it’s also important to highlight student efforts in addressing food insecurity and food waste:
The FreeEats App, designed by student Trey Rudolph, aims to reduce food waste on campus by crowdsourcing live information about leftover, free food on campus. The Burning Kumquat, WashU’s organic student-run garden, has a weekly farmers’ market where they sell produce to WashU students at a pay-what-you-can rate. They also donate to food pantries around the city, most recently to Operation Food Search and the Metro Trans Umbrella Group. The Residential Compost Program, run by WashU Green Ambassadors (WUGAs), provides compost buckets to students living in residential halls. You might have also noticed that Bauer Cafe recently made a switch from non-compostable to compostable utensils, which is an exciting new development that’s still underway.
If you are struggling with food insecurity, you are not alone. Please know that there are resources out there, and you are deserving of help.
- To get involved with St. Louis Food Share Network, please send them an email.
- To learn more about Thomas Dunn Learning Center (TDLC), please visit their website.
- To apply to the Food Security Fund, please apply through their online form.
- “Ensuring Food Security for Students,” WashU Office of Sustainability (OOS).