Numbers suggest more than 30 percent of KU students are food insecure

photo by: Kathy Hanks

Students line up for the Lutheran Campus Ministry's ikigai noodle night Thursday, Aug. 23, 2018, at Westwood House, 1421 W. 19th St.

Thursday, Aug. 23 was a good day for Michael Saimongkolkul. He could go to Westwood House for the ikigai noodle buffet.

“I have food insecurities,” said Saimongkolkul, a University of Kansas student, holding two carryout containers of homemade ramen noodles with toppings. One container was for him, and the other was for his roommate. Organizers of the buffet served at Westwood House, 1421 W. 19th St., by the Lutheran Campus Ministry, ask only for a $2 donation. However, even those who can’t pay can still eat, and those who can afford to give more often do.

“It’s a very real thing,” Saimongkolkul said. “On Thursdays, I feel secure; I know where my meal is coming from.”

photo by: Kathy Hanks

KU student Michael Saimongkolkul carries ramen noodle bowls at the Lutheran Campus Ministry’s ikigai noodle night Thursday, Aug. 23, 2018, at Westwood House, 1421 W. 19th St. Saimongkolkul says he suffers from food insecurity.

Jennifer Wamelink, associate vice provost of Student Affairs, agrees that food insecurity — or, in her words, “students making decisions about not eating or reducing their calorie intake, or not having high-quality, nutritious food” — is a real problem on campus.

And about a year ago, after a student’s senior thesis suggested that more research was needed on hunger at KU, the Office of Student Affairs established a food insecurity committee to study the issue further.

The committee’s members are a mix of faculty and students. Among them is Stacey Swearingen White, a professor of urban planning who leads a research team within the committee. Her team is working with a survey on food insecurity taken this past spring.

In the survey, 31.5 percent of KU students who responded reported that they are experiencing food insecurity, Swearingen White said.

Swearingen White said the survey used a randomized sample of 6,000 students and got a response rate of 12.6 percent, including both undergraduate and graduate students.

“I also did some focus groups and interviews, (along) with a graduate student studying these issues, to understand the experience of food insecure students better,” Swearingen White said.

Although she wasn’t comfortable saying that the results are definitive, she said she believes they have raised some important issues, including the fact that students with serious food insecurity may not all be experiencing hunger.

“Instead, they may be consuming enough calories, but of food types that are less nutritious,” Swearingen White said. Students often find healthier options too expensive, she said.

“I very definitely believe that there are hungry students at KU and that the broader problem of food insecurity is quite serious,” Swearingen White said.

Along with the expanded research, Wamelink said, the group is working on moving the Campus Cupboard, a free food pantry currently located at Westwood House, to the Kansas Union. That effort is spearheaded by the Center for Community Outreach and should be finished in early September, Wamelink said.

The group has also been working on a dining plan where students can receive free meals if they are in financial crisis, Wamelink said.

A widespread problem

There has been much national attention on the issue of students and hunger. Wamelink cited a recent study by Wisconsin Hope Lab, which found that 36 percent of university students nationwide were food insecure in the 30 days preceding the survey.

“There are a lot of researchers looking at this,” Wamelink said. “A lot of it can be attributed to the rising cost of education, and financial aid supports have not necessarily kept in line with that. Students are experiencing bigger gaps between their financial aid package and what it actually costs to attend. Students are coming to campus with limited financial resources and are finding that it can be very expensive to go to school.”

For example, a dining plan is required with a residence hall contract. The cheapest plan is 10 meals a week, at a cost of $3,684 a year. But that is not going to provide three meals a day, every day. That would be the all access plan, which costs $4,410 a year, according to the KU Student Housing website.

Wamelink said we tend to have a cultural idea that college students should eat pizza, macaroni and cheese and instant ramen as part of the experience. But if students are not getting nutritious food, she said, that can affect their health and their academic performance.

‘A common humanity’

Back at Westwood House, Saimongkolkul joined a growing line of students who were coming for the weekly ramen bowl of steamy broth and vegetables over homemade noodles.

It was the first ikigai noodle buffet night of the school year. Word spread, and about 50 students showed up.

“Ikigai” is a Japanese concept meaning “a reason for being,” according to the buffet’s website.

photo by: Kathy Hanks

KU junior Murphy Tinio fills his ramen noodle bowl at the Lutheran Campus Ministry’s ikigai noodle night Thursday, Aug. 23, 2018, at Westwood House, 1421 W. 19th St.

Dana Comi, three years into her doctoral program, coordinates the do-it-yourself ramen buffet, which includes homemade noodles, a miso or shoyu base, corn, peas, spinach and chicken. It is served over the homemade noodles. Homemade cupcakes are also served. The menu is the same every week, Comi said.

Comi said the inexpensive meal is not just for those who are struggling. Some people come to the buffet simply because they like the food, she said.

For the past three years, Tim and Shantel Grace, owners of Ramen Bowls at 918 Massachusetts St., have donated the homemade noodles and some of the toppings for the meal.

“Shantel had the inspiration for noodle night,” said Lutheran campus minister Shawn Norris, who knew her when she was a student at KU in 2000.

“When she and her husband moved back to town, she wanted to give back, and asked if they could do noodles,” Norris said. “We started very small in 2016, with 20 people. At one point we had 200 on a Thursday night. It’s really fun. People from all over the world come through here. It’s not just sharing food, but a common humanity.”

Other sources to combat hunger around Lawrence

In addition to the Westwood House ikigai buffet and the Campus Cupboard, there are many resources for food insecure students both on and off campus:

• The Ecumenical Campus Ministry, 1204 Oread Ave., serves a vegan lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Thursdays.

• Just Food, the food bank for Douglas County, is located at 1000 E. 11th St. Go to justfoodks.org to learn more.

• The Mobile Food Pantry operates at 9 a.m. every third Wednesday at the Douglas County Fairgrounds.

• Jubilee Cafe, a partnership between KU’s Center for Community Outreach and First United Methodist Church, serves breakfast from 6 to 8:15 a.m. at the church, 946 Vermont St.

• Lawrence Interdenominational Nutrition Kitchen (LINK) serves lunch at 1 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays at First Christian Church, 1000 Kentucky St.

• A Twitter account, @FreeFoodAtKU, tweets places where KU students can get free food on campus.

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