Almost one in four UNC undergraduates suffers from food insecurity.
Unsure where their next meal will come from, students find themselves dealing with the consequences of the food desert that exists on UNC’s campus. Healthy, affordable and reliable food options are virtually nonexistent for many students, especially for those living on South Campus.
An informal survey found that nearly 40 percent of UNC students ate less than they felt that they needed due to financial concerns. Native, Hispanic and Black students are at an increased risk of being food insecure than their white counterparts.
UNC is not an anomaly — nearly half of all public and community college students report food insecurity.
However, in order to address food insecurity at UNC, we must look at the root of the problem: the food desert.
What is a food desert?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines a food desert as an area without adequate access to healthy and affordable food. According to the USDA, an area can be low income or have low access.
When measuring “low access,” the USDA refers to how far a population lives from the nearest grocery store. In urban areas, the threshold for being considered a food desert is exceeding one mile. This threshold is 10 miles in rural areas.
From this criteria, it is clear that much of UNC’s campus is considered a food desert. An atlas from the USDA shows areas that are low income and low access, taking into account distance from affordable and healthy food, as well as vehicular access to these resources.
South Campus, which predominantly houses first-year students, is considered a food desert under every set of criteria. Similarly, much of North Campus is a food desert by at least one measure.
This should not be surprising when we consider how students are particularly vulnerable to food insecurity. Many students are without cars, income and free time to pursue healthy food options in Chapel Hill. The issues of low income and low access are amplified on a college campus.
Accessibility is to blame.
There are few grocery stores within walking distance of UNC’s campus. The Target on Franklin Street is the newest addition to an otherwise lacking shopping center. Even then, Target’s grocery prices are about 15 percent higher than stores like Walmart.
Chapel Hill’s public transportation system is helpful in connecting students to otherwise inaccessible grocery stores. This is especially helpful when we consider that first-year students, who may live on South Campus and be disproportionately impacted by the food desert, likely don’t have cars.
However, even when students can access healthy and inexpensive groceries, they may lack the time or ability to cook for themselves. Preparing food within a dorm and shared kitchen spaces presents its own challenges, and they must be navigated on top of coursework and other commitments.
What about on-campus dining?
On top of tuition, housing and textbooks, meal plans are an expense some students can’t afford. UNC is unique in that it does not require undergraduates living on campus to purchase meal plans, which is a stray from the approach of many other universities.
As a result, students are opting out of the healthy and accessible food options on campus and relying on the sparsely-distributed grocery stores of Chapel Hill.
Even when students do purchase a meal plan, it’s not always affordable or realistic. The average university meal plan costs $4,500 per academic year. UNC offers plans ranging from $3,000 to over $4,800 — the presence of these options is a good thing, but even these food prices do not mirror that of the real world.
Based on this national average – which UNC’s plans straddle – it costs more, per meal, to eat in college than it costs the average American. And by no small margin. The average American spends $11 a day on meals. The average college student? $18.75.
Even on campus, the food desert is perpetuated, and affordability is a barrier to nutritious and plentiful food.
What can be done?
The opening of a small Target on Franklin Street in 2017 helped combat food insecurity on campus. The store, neighboring Granville Towers, created a place to shop that is close to campus and caters to the needs of students.
However, the Franklin Street Target is still at a significant distance from South Campus students.
Students are particularly vulnerable to food insecurity: they are operating under budget and time constraints and put at a disadvantage when they live in dorms.
It’s time for more affordable grocery stores in Chapel Hill, and it’s time to consider the needs of South Campus students, who have continuously been distanced from the resources on Franklin Street and the rest of campus.
We must build a bridge between our most vulnerable student populations and healthy, affordable food.
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