Highlights from the Network: Alana Davidson, UNH Student
In this edition of Share Your Story, we are highlighting a student researcher from UNH. Alana Davidson just completed her junior year at the University of New Hampshire (UNH), where she is studying nutrition and dietetics with a focus in public health. Her interests are in food insecurity in America, particularly around childhood and college hunger issues. She is currently conducting an independent research project on hunger issues among the UNH student population, with the ultimate goal of developing resources to make UNH a hunger-free campus. Recently, Melissa Groves caught up with Alana to find out more about her research and how it will impact UNH students in the future.
UNH Students are at Risk for Food Insecurity
Alana has noticed that over the past several years, food insecurity has been becoming a growing concern on college campuses. The rates of tuition at four-year public universities have been increasing, as have the costs of books and other educational expenses. For approximately two years, Alana has been conducting research on food insecurity among the student population at UNH. Shockingly, she reports, “Our preliminary data indicate that roughly 1 in 4 students on UNH’s campus are facing food insecurity issues. This is higher than the national household level of 14% in 2014. Students are skipping meals and going hungry for periods of time, because they cannot afford to buy food.” Food insecurity has been associated with lower academic performance and absenteeism in children, poor mental health, and obesity. In order for students to be successful in college and afterward, they need to not be worrying about where their next meal is coming from.
Part of Alana’s research includes conducting in-person interviews with food-insecure students. From this experience, she has discovered how complex the issue is and how many different types of food insecurity issues there are among college students. She explains, “There is not just one fix-all solution; these issues are so intertwined with knowledge and education deficits on nutrition, shopping on a budget, and cooking, as well as with wealth disparities and the financial burden of a college education.” Students are juggling paying for tuition, rent, transportation, and food. “For some students, food is just not a priority and is the first thing to get compromised in order to be able to pay for other expenses.”
Working Toward a Solution for College Hunger
Over the next few years it will be important to find different types of solutions that can be implemented on college campuses to help food insecure students and to work within communities to address and combat these issues. Alana was able to use the findings from her research to advocate with the New Hampshire Governor’s office and UNH leadership about the importance of fighting to end food insecurity in New Hampshire, especially among the college population. Alana’s research is already leading to concrete steps to address this issue. She says, “Since my discussions with the Governor’s office and UNH leadership, a task force has been created at UNH to address this issue. We are currently working toward creating solutions for food insecure students that can be implemented beginning in the next academic year.”
Because of the complexity of the issue, the solution will require a multifaceted approach. To improve the local food system will require partnerships with many different types of organizations. How food is distributed to students needs to be addressed, to ensure that students who need food are not denied access because they cannot afford to eat. This will involve working with dining halls and local farmers. She says that, additionally, the local food pantry has been instrumental in helping students who do not have enough food to eat. But, in order for students to accept this help, the stigma surrounding food assistance needs to be addressed and reduced on college campuses. She explains, “Many students find it shameful or embarrassing to admit they do not have enough food to eat and do not want to ask for help. Talking with students and community members about this issue and raising awareness of it would be a huge first step. Until people realize this is even an issue, and nothing to be ashamed of, no change will come.” Ultimately, she says, it comes down to the fact that healthy, nutritious food in this country can be very expensive and “tends to be more of a privilege for the privileged. Our entire food system needs to shift so that healthy food is affordable and accessible to all Americans, regardless of a person’s zip code and/or socioeconomic status.”
Food insecurity is a subject Alana cares passionately about. She has also worked as a No Kid Hungry Youth Ambassador for the national No Kid Hungry campaign at End Hunger Connecticut!, where she worked to increase awareness of and participation in the federal Summer Meals programs throughout the state of CT. This summer, she will be completing an internship at Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), a national anti-hunger organization in Washington, D.C. In the future, she hopes to work in public policy on the federal nutrition programs and to continue to be an advocate for food justice. The NH Food Alliance is confident that Alana’s work in recognizing and addressing food insecurity in the local food system here at UNH will not only impact students here, but will have far-reaching effects on college hunger in the future.