Hunger is an Educational Issue

Hunger is an Educational Issue

Christian Schneider’s recent Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel / USA Today column takes issue with the idea that college and universities should care whether their students go hungry.

Read that again. He takes issue with the idea that colleges and universities should care whether their students go hungry.

Ben Wyatt staring into the camera

Schneider recalls that as “a broke college student in the mid-1990s, I learned every trick in the book to keep myself fed.” These tricks included skipping meals entirely, working in restaurants where he was fed for free, and impersonating other students to use their meal swipes – in other words, experiencing food insecurity. Schneider looks back on this fondly, however, as a period where he grew up and learned to be an adult. It is testimony to his privilege that he didn’t have to “grow up” before then.

The idea that college is the first time students fend for themselves is based in a profoundly white, middle-class view of the world, where caregivers are easily able to provide food and shelter for their children. This does not describe the elementary or high-school experience of students whose parents work three jobs to keep a family afloat, or who rely on food stamps, or who exist in the foster system. Many students are caregivers themselves when they enter college, looking after younger siblings or elderly relatives who need supplementary income.

Yet Schneider believes contemporary students could learn a thing or two from his history. “Asking universities to expand their roles in students’ lives exacerbates the perception of college campuses as bubbles that insulate young adults from the real world,” he argues. “College should be a time when our kids learn to do things for themselves and that means keeping themselves fed.”

Here, Schneider does not acknowledge that hunger is a problem in the “real world” he wants students to enter. Many adults who don’t go to college or whom have graduated from college need assistance from food banks, or state-provided health insurance, or free mental healthcare, just as much as students. Economic disparities are not magically erased by the act of growing up; being in college offers no halcyon protection to students whose caregivers cannot offer them financial support.

But Schneider thinks of college students as “young adults flush with student loan cash.” He does not recognize the students who are sending money home to support a family, or who must make rent in an increasingly expensive city, or whose health insurance is pitiful and their healthcare needs high.

Schneider seems to believe that there is something character-building about hunger. Yet hunger slows a person’s cognitive function, which makes it particularly hard for a student to perform at their best. Hunger is also positively correlated with housing insecurity and mental health difficulties. Many students feel terrible shame about the fact that they are hungry – shame that Schneider actively cultivates with his column.[1]

I, too, was a broke student in the 90s. I remember nothing elevating about the experience of juggling too-little money to cover my needs, or being overdrawn for weeks at a time. Had there been a food pantry on my campus, I would have used it – if I had been able to convince myself not to be ashamed to do so. I lived on a campus where many students had sizeable disposable incomes. I was constantly aware of the gap between my lived experiences and theirs; between my claim to a college education and theirs.

People do not go hungry in the United States because there isn’t enough food to go around, but rather because that food is not distributed evenly, available to all, or affordable to all. It is a basic act of human compassion to want everyone to be fed, regardless of their age or educational status. If we all agree that a college education is a worthy thing to have, and if we have students at our colleges who are going hungry, we must also accept that they must be fed if we are to have any hope of providing them with an education. This is true on a moral, ethical, and practical level – education is an embodied experience. Our students are not brains in a jar – they are whole human beings. They deserve dignity, full stomachs, good teachers, caring environments in which to learn, and our efforts to redress the injustices that see them go hungry in the first place.

[1] See ; ;

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