Before the pandemic, food insecurity affected around 36% of the UO student population. It’s safe to assume the number has risen over the past year-and-a-half: statistics from Feed America say that around 19% of Americans struggled with obtaining food in 2019, and that number rose to around 23% in 2021.
Yet food insecurity is rarely talked about in social circles. There’s stigma and shame surrounding not having access to food, but there shouldn’t be. Being able to eat and having access to healthy options is crucial for one’s mental health. Although the cliché of the college student that survives off of ramen is funny, the reality is students need more nutritious meals to get through their day.
“Mental health is such a holistic experience,” Maddie Alms, a third-year student who runs the cooking class program at the Duck Nest, said. “Having access to food that makes you feel good and fuels you properly is really important.” Alms also explained that having access to food affects a student’s concentration, as well as the way students socialize in class. Going out to coffee or lunch is a common hangout for friends after class, but for students struggling with food security, it can be difficult to navigate the college social realm.
Alms also believes, if you feed your body well, it’s easier to handle your mental health. “I know for a lot of students, especially if they’re struggling with their mental health, making food is hard,” she said. The Duck Nest works to make little things accessible, like meal prep or grocery shopping, so cooking doesn’t feel so overwhelming. It provides classes and instructional videos, as well as instructions on how and where students should grocery shop. “Providing options for easy meals, especially for those struggling with their mental health, is so important,” Alms said.
The Duck Nest offers cooking classes for students who are struggling with the transition to cooking for themselves. Ingredients are provided by Food for Lane County, a nonprofit in Eugene that also acts as a food bank, so all students need is access to a kitchen and a pot or pan.
“We offer three types of classes: cooking for one or two, meal prep and vegan or vegetarian meals,” Alms said. The Duck Nest also talks about food insecurity, smart grocery shopping and cooking on a budget during their classes. “We just want to make it so every student feels like they at least have one night where they made a meal they can be proud of,” Alms said.
“Never be afraid to ask for help,” Alms said. “Be honest with yourself and set varied goals when it comes to cooking.” No one is going to be perfect when they start to cook, so being honest and gentle with yourself is an important part of the process.
The University of Oregon offers several programs related to food security. The Duck Nest offers SNAP drop-in hours where students can get help filing for monetary food assistance, which provides around $250 a month for groceries. “We have at least seven people on staff who are trained to help with SNAP,” Alms said. “One of the biggest barriers is people not knowing if they’re eligible, and we’re here to help with that and the confusing applications.” The Duck Nest offers a SNAP drop-in hour every day, with times posted on their Instagram.
The Student Sustainability Center also offers programs for folks struggling with food security. “We have the produce drop from 3 to 5 p.m. every Tuesday at the EMU amphitheater,” Tanner Gill, a UO sophomore and food security program assistant at the SSC, said. The produce drop features free, fresh fruits and vegetables weekly, along with some grains and kitchen staples. “We also have the pantry on Wednesdays and Thursdays from 4 to 6 p.m.,” Gill said. The pantry, which is located at Grace Lutheran Church, offers hygiene products and proteins as well as other selections. The SSC collaborates with Food for Lane County for their programs.
The SSC is also working with SNAP enrollment and plans to set up a period for students to come in and get help filling out their forms this year. “The biggest way a student volunteer can help is to learn the knowledge and tools of navigating the really difficult process of applying to SNAP so they can help others get food benefits,” Ella Melroy, a UO junior and food security program assistant at the SSC, said.
Another problem the Duck Nest and the SSC face when it comes to SNAP are students thinking they’re taking food or money away from other students. “That’s just not true,” Alms said. “Money is always being put into the program, so there’s more than enough for everyone.”
“The people [who] are looking for SNAP programs are people [who] are working or are in class full-time,” Gill said. He lamented the long wait times students experience when trying to enroll over the phone and explained that enrolling in SNAP can be a frustrating process in general.
“There’s a lot of documents you have to submit, and you have to continue to resubmit after you’re enrolled to keep getting benefits,” Melroy said. Students often run into red tape when trying to enroll for food benefits, which can easily deter them from finishing their process. SSC and Duck Nest staff acknowledge the process is tedious but are willing to work with students every step of the way toward food security.
The intersection between the food one eats and their mental health is imperative to the way they function at school. The Duck Nest and SSC are working to provide for students and take care of their mental well-being.