Editor's note: Raven Bough and Kyla Coleman are Collegian staff members.
To combat hunger and food waste on campus, the Office of Common Ground launched a GroupMe chat named “Free Food at UR.”
“We don’t really talk about what it’s like to be hungry and low-income on this campus,” said Lisa Miles, associate director at Common Ground. “It’s a hidden crisis.”
There are no official statistics about how many students have a hard time finding food options, but Miles knew students who faced hunger, she said.
“Three years ago, I noticed multiple seniors and juniors telling me that they struggled to cover meals,” Miles said. “A lot of them commuted or lived in University Forest Apartments.”
Miles and her student assistant, Kayla Wise, created the group chat, inspired by students at Washington University in St. Louis.
“I was at a conference and saw how they created a similar group chat with more than 700 members,” Miles said. “I’m completely unashamed to say that I stole their idea for our students.”
Since she has no official statistics about food insecurity on campus, Miles is working on creating a survey for students to report issues with hunger.
“It’s mostly off-campus seniors and juniors saying they’re struggling because of limited meal swipes,” Miles said. “Freshmen and sophomores live in residence halls, so they’re required to have meal plans with unlimited swipes.”
There are more than 650 members in UR's free-food group chat at publishing time. Most of the members are students, but there are some professors and staff members who joined, including Steve Bisese, the vice president of student development.
"I can't tell you how many times I had leftover food due to no-shows or simply ordering too much food for an event I've planned," Bisese wrote in an email.
The group chat has two rules: First, upload locations and pictures of leftover food at events. Second, don’t use the chat to advertise events or for messages unrelated to food.
Sophomore Raven Baugh shares occasional events offering leftovers.
“Some students use the chat as a replacement for SpiderBytes, but they tend to get removed if they do that,” Baugh said.
The chat spread through word-of-mouth and Facebook groups.
“I was excited to sign up when Kayla [Wise] shared it in the Class of 2021 page,” Baugh said.
The GroupMe stays inclusive by allowing any person to join.
“I didn’t want low-income students to feel isolated or obligated to share their personal reasons,” Miles said. “This is why we decided to open the chat to everyone.”
Miles said that an average of 45 students joined the chat each day, but the chat has its growing pains.
“Recently, we had some students using inappropriate language," Baugh said. "People had to remind them that we have faculty members [in the chat].”
Junior Fatema Al Darii doesn’t post in the chat, but she shared her concerns.
“I think the intentions are good, but it's sliding off the main path," Al Darii said. “People post photos but don't mention if the event ended or what the food is for."
This led to students showing up at the beginning of events only to grab food and leave, Miles said.
“It makes [chat members] look bad,” junior Kyla Coleman said. “The original purpose was to post pictures of leftovers after the event ended.”
Some students criticized the lack of free healthy food.
“Most clubs and events have pizza and other junk food,” Al Darii said. “It’d be nice to have leftover fruits or vegetables at events.”
Miles acknowledged the criticism.
“We're trying, but it's hard to find a vendor that delivers healthy fresh food,” she said. “I think it's a good reminder for all student groups to offer alternatives like fruit trays.”
Although Miles said she appreciated that the chat encouraged conversations about food insecurity and low-income matters, she wants to do more, she said.
"I want us, as an institution, to be more transparent about resources for struggling students," Miles said. “We could do more to be aware of the gaps and problems students face.”
Contact contributer Sunny Lim at firstname.lastname@example.org