We Need to Talk About Food Injustice at Cornell

A collaborative piece by Cornell Hunger Relief and Anabel’s Collaboration and Education

In recent years, the term food desert has grown in popularity as a means to understand the high prevalence of obesity and malnutrition-related illness in poor areas of the US. Faced with an overwhelmingly complex issue, food deserts provided distant political stakeholders with a simple explanation of hunger - poor people lacked easy access to healthy food options. Realistically, the issues of food security are not isolated to impoverished places nor a single root cause.

Food activist Karen Washington has been in food justice for 30 years, her work addressing the intersecting issues of oppression, racism, health, food access, and poverty in New York. Her work in food justice inspired her to coin the term food apartheid as a more accurate way to frame the issue of food security than food desert because the former emphasizes how relentless racism led to limited access to healthy food for underrepresented groups. Systems of apartheid are built upon racially discriminatory policies and can therefore only be reformed through widespread social change.

When activists aim to reduce the issue of food insecurity by focusing on food deserts, they do not address the root causes. In an interview with Guernica, Washington claims that food desert is an “outsider term”: people living in areas with limited access to high-quality food do not use the term food desert to explain their situation. The term apartheid points to systemic racism as a driver of socioeconomic inequality and food inaccessibility. Food apartheid demands radical social change as a means to address the root causes of hunger.

Look around our campus - you see abundance everywhere. Cornell’s extravagant architecture and esteemed dining halls do not portray the gnawing hunger that follows many undergraduate students to class. Despite the vast availability of food on- and off-campus, many students (particularly students of color) cannot access adequate food.

While previous student experiences of food insecurity were mainly anecdotal, results from the 2019 Cornell Undergraduate Experience Survey prove that food insecurity and injustice is prevalent on campus. The survey of 3,500 students measured how often undergraduates experienced food insecurity by asking about five barriers - Lack of transportation (to off-campus groceries), lack of money to buy food, lack of time to prepare food, lack of time to buy food, and poor locations for campus eateries.

When distributed by graduating year, a lack of time to prepare food was the most frequent barrier faced by all of the grade levels. Seniors experienced the most issues of food access, with Freshmen facing barriers the least often. For every grade, the least important issue was a lack of money to buy food, but it is still an issue. In light of this data, Cornell Dining’s decision to make meal plans mandatory might not seem too outrageous. If freshmen are facing the least financial barriers to food, then meal plans could be part of the solution. However, we must still design for the margins and the required freshman meal plan can be a financial burden for some, especially when it does not meet dietary preferences and lines/transportation to and from takes too much time. Targeted solutions to match each grade’s largest barriers are needed to address student food insecurity at Cornell. While the trends by graduating year provide an overview of food insecurity, we must further analyze trends by race to see how food apartheid is manifested at Cornell.

When distributed by race, we see inequality in diverse student populations' access to food. Here we see a clear pattern in which students of color experience barriers to food access more frequently than other students. Racial disparities to food access are prevalent in the food system of this elitist institution. White students were much less likely to face any barrier to access necessary food than Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and Multiracial students. This trend can be seen across barriers, although the most pronounced gap is lack of money. Only 12.2% of White (US) and 15.5% of Asian (US) students reported facing a lack of money, making it the least common barrier to adequate food for these groups. Meanwhile, nearly 60% of Indigenous students went hungry due to a lack of money often or very often. Black, Latinx, and Multiracial students were more than twice as likely to face lack of money as a frequent barrier to access food than White students.

It is unacceptable that Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and Multiracial students bear the most significant burden of the failures of Cornell’s food system. We need to organize as students, staff, and community members who are hungry and demand change. Stakeholders at the top - particularly Cornell Dining and Administration - need to hear from students experiencing these barriers and be open to reforming systems that perpetuate racial inequality. Initiatives to address campus food security by Cornell students and faculty need to be built upon a coalition of diverse voices dedicated to amplifying the shared experiences of people facing hunger in all its forms. Together, we can re-imagine how institutions address food inaccessibility on campus while empowering diverse student groups to embrace food sovereignty. Join us in spearheading a platform for engaging with and defining the issues of our complex food system to eradicate on-campus food insecurity.

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