After listening to the continual media garbage in this horrid election campaign I thought that I would post something “nice.” I predict that the campaign will only get worse and that the mud will fly fast and furiously. It has become one of the worst and dirtiest on both sides from both parties. I hope that we all can recover.
But now about the good in the world, at $68,000 per year, George Washington University in Washington, D.C., is one of the most expensive schools in the country, and yet some students — most of whom receive financial aid — still don’t have enough to eat every week.
William Atkins/Courtesy of The George Washington University
The university, bolstered by a national survey by the College and University Food Bank Alliance, discovered that nearly half of its student population matched the national rate of 48 percent of respondents who experienced food insecurity.
So the school opened a food pantry for students, joining over 300 other schools across the nation that have done the same.
College meal plans vary throughout the country, from traditional dining hall settings to a la carte combinations. And some plans focus on options all around the city, says Tim Miller, associate dean of students at George Washington, which is embedded in a well-to-do neighborhood of the nation’s capital.
“The population at GW does a lot in the city,” Miller says. “They intern a great deal. So we have a plan that allows students to meet that need.” He adds that many of the university’s students also cook for themselves.
The school’s food pantry is unmarked. Students fill out forms that list their email addresses and student ID numbers, but they do not have to give their names or discuss their finances.
“One of the things that we learned from talking to all the other universities that we spoke to this summer was one of the concerns for students is anonymity around this and being able to feel like they can use us without having any judgment,” Miller says.
He describes one student who walked in terrified of not knowing what the pantry would be like and was overjoyed and brought to tears when she saw it was like a grocery store.
“She felt like she could go to every shelf and take what she most needed versus being directed you have to take this, this and this. But the fact that there’s an empowering part of this is really something we’ve heard a lot about from the students who’ve used it so far,” he says.
And students are using it. In September, the university did a soft-launch of the food pantry, without any advertising, and 21 students signed up immediately. Now, 147 students are enrolled in the program.
“We have gotten amazing notes back from students about how this has been a blessing to them and how this really has helped them focus on what they thought they could be able to do here,” says Miller.
Because of George Washington University’s sticker price, Miller says it’s important to listen to students.
“We want to have faith in our students that if they say they need this, that they do and trust them to take what they need,” he says, adding that the school has focused a lot on affordability and tries to do everything possible, including partnering with other organizations, to provide support.
But the growing number of food pantries on college campuses may well be taken as yet another sign that a college education in general is just too expensive.
Miller says the idea is a positive response to a really challenging situation, but it’s not the ultimate solution.
“I think we have to look at, how do we help our students afford it? And how do we manage the cost of higher education for all students? We’re also looking for what that final solution is.”
And yet another wonderful positive thing done for a community- Laura Benshoff is a reporter with member station WHYY wrote that for 12 years, Chester, Pa., had no supermarket. In an effort to end this so-called food desert, a local food bank plunked down a nonprofit grocery store in the impoverished Delaware County city in October 2013.
Area food bank Philabundance opened the new store, called Fare & Square, in the same footprint as a former supermarket at the corner of Trainer and 9th streets.
When it opened, the store was touted as a philanthropic venture and a boon to Chester, a city of about 34,000. A third of the population lives below the poverty level.
After raising $7 million in startup funds through grants, donations and loans, Fare & Square launched with a two-pronged mission: become a sustainable business and make people in Chester healthier.
But when Fare & Square first opened its doors, a lot of the stock wasn’t winning over customers.
“Watercress lettuce — that didn’t sell too well. Leeks — that didn’t go too well. Rutabagas, parsnips — that didn’t go over well,” says produce manager Nate Sumpter, a self-proclaimed carnivore.
On first glance, Fare & Square is intentionally laid out like an upscale grocery store, with produce front and center.
“Our model is, we want to have all kinds of healthy stuff, so when people walk in they’re like, ‘Wow, what’s all this?’ ” says operations manager Mike Basher.
But the store also wants people to see what they’re used to seeing in grocers — and that includes processed and junk food. TastyKake displays line the checkout aisles. Cases of soda lurk below eye level, behind displays of fruits and vegetables.
The supermarket business is notoriously tough: razor-thin margins on a product that can quite literally rot on the shelves if it doesn’t sell. Big chains rely on high volume to get the lowest prices on what they sell, and the returns from a successful store may prop up new or underperforming locations. A one-off grocer has neither advantage.
Those chains also average profit margins of only 1 or 2 percent and generally take three to five years to get back into the black.
To get and keep customers, Basher and his crew started tinkering with what they carried. They cleared products that weren’t selling from the shelves and replaced them with goods customers asked for, like Caribbean and Latin American food.
On a recent visit, a lot of people in Fare & Square’s checkout line were buying packaged foods and fresh foods together. Sales have grown year over year, but Fare & Square needs to take in 20 percent more to break even. For now, it it is subsidized by Philabundance.
Making money presents one challenge. Changing people’s eating habits is another tall order.
Fare & Square has been experimenting with incentives to get customers to spend more of their food dollars on healthful and fresh food by lowering the cost of things like produce.
Customers who self-declare as living on less than 200 percent of the poverty level receive 7 percent back on all of their all purchases through a program called Carrot Cash — but they get back more for each dollar they spend on fruits and vegetables.
Anne Palmer, a food researcher at Johns Hopkins University, says research into food deserts shows that just because more healthful food is on shelves doesn’t guarantee customers will buy it.
“If you’re on a budget, you’re not purchasing food with the intent of improving your health. You’re purchasing food to satisfy hunger,” she says. “You make choices you can afford on things you know your family will eat.”
Food that is unfamiliar or difficult to make therefore constitutes a risk: If your family doesn’t eat it, that’s money down the drain. At the same time, restricting what people can buy to only healthful food is unrealistic, says Palmer.
“We have to recognize everybody wants a wide range of foods. … [Packaged goods] might be what it takes to bring people in, recognizing that if you don’t do that, they’re going to go somewhere for that food,” she says.
The relationship between incentives like Carrot Cash and more healthful eating hasn’t been studied long enough to determine whether there is a link, according to Palmer. Researchers at Swarthmore College did conduct a field study at Fare & Square, pending publication, that showed giving customers a coupon for produce led them to spend more total food dollars on fresh food, whereas receiving a coupon for any food in the store did not.
Employees at Fare & Square say one of the company’s goals for the next year is to use more of its customer-level data to learn more about how promotions and incentives affect healthy eating habits.
No matter what they’re buying, people shopping in the store say they are grateful to have an affordable option in Chester.
When asked how often they shop at Fare & Square, Chris and Kyisha Smith, a young married couple perusing the meat case, answer in unison: “Every week.”
“They got everything, chicken, steak. … They the best though, I ain’t even gonna lie to you,” says Chris Smith.
In recent years, Chester has seen both a deep-discount grocer and a members-only food co-op come and go. The folks behind Fare & Square hope they’ve found a sweet spot that is viable, somewhere in the middle.
Aren’t thee positive strategies refreshing and a change for the better? Wouldn’t it be nice if more programs like these could provide additional services?
But maybe we should be concerned regarding why services such as these are needed and what are the real solutions?
Then back to what is scaring me most, do either of our candidates running for the highest office in our country have solutions for what really ails our country and are their solutions sustainable and effective?