When I got to campus for the first time, I was struck by UO’s food: a sushi bar, a Mongolian grill, custom pasta and teriyaki bowls. From the beginning, it was clear that UO dining stood apart from the rest of the country. In fact, our dining services rank 15th in the nation — and that's before the new Unthank Hall adds a whopping nine more venues next year.
Campus is brimming with food, and yet a 2017 undergraduate thesis written by Kiara Kashuba found that over half of UO students reported feeling food insecure in the past year. These findings follow horrifying national trends. A 2019 study, for instance, found that 45% of students at over 100 colleges reported experiencing food insecurity within the past 30 days.
Even when controlling for socioeconomic variables, these students are 31% more likely to report skipping classes or study sessions because they are hungry. They are significantly less likely to buy required textbooks or join extracurricular activities. And, at the end of the day, they are 41% more likely to drop a class and 26% more likely to not graduate in four years. Put simply, hunger stands between students and success. Instead of relief, they have met COVID-19’s crippling economic devastation.
Our dialogue surrounding the hunger epidemic reinforces the problem. Namely, what does food insecurity mean? Generally, it refers to an inability to access nutritional food, but even academics can’t agree on the details. Back in 1992, a survey cataloged over 200 distinct academic definitions. This ambiguity is no accident. The transformation of hunger to food insecurity stems from a Reagan-era push to hide America’s hunger problem.
In 1982, President Ronald Reagan took advantage of the brutal recession to slash food assistance benefits. Critics condemned the move, claiming that it would cause a resurgence in American hunger. In response, Reagan appointed a commission to investigate hunger in America.
Unsurprisingly, the Reagan-appointed taskforce investigating Reagan-created hunger concluded that Reagan-directed welfare cuts did not harm the poor. Headlines like “U.S. Panel Says Hunger Cannot Be Documented” flooded major newspapers. The commission, though, could not pretend that there was no hunger in America. Instead, they rationalized inaction, claiming that the term hunger was too vague to research.
The researchers argued hunger could either refer to the effects of malnutrition or an inability to access food, even temporarily. For the former, the commission reported that there was, “no evidence that widespread undernutrition is a major health problem in the United States.” For the latter, they claimed that people can be hungry for both financial and non-financial reasons. Students could be hungry because they cannot afford lunch or because they forgot their lunch at home. How could they, a poor commission with the meager backing of the President, differentiate between the two? The task, they claimed, was impossible to accomplish with “any reasonable degree of objectivity.”
The United States Department of Agriculture soon replaced the phrase “hunger” with “food insecure with hunger.” Then, in 2006, they removed “hunger” altogether, creating “very low food security” — whatever that means. With each iteration, it became less and less clear that, in the richest country on Earth, millions go hungry.
To be fair, jargon adds valuable nuance to research. “Food insecurity” allows researchers to pinpoint students who cannot eat due to financial constraints, but it is no accident that the term stems from Reagan era austerity measures.
When “food insecurity” replaces “hunger,” we easily overlook the insanity that over half of UO students lack consistent access to food. We lose sight of the emotional trauma of not being able to feed yourself. We lose the image of the millions of students whose hunger pains distract them from their studies — of the absurdity that this happens on the same campus where every two weeks, freshmen frantically look for ways to spend extra meal points. Food insecurity rightly specifies hunger borne out of financial necessity, but the jargon meant to better identify the problem thwarts taking action.
Call hunger by its name. It is time to stop hiding behind our language and take the action that the problems on campus demand. This means donating to the student food pantry. It means demanding that UO allows students to donate their meal points at any time during the term. It means fighting for lower tuition and higher financial aid because we can’t study if we can’t eat.