As the college’s annual fundraising campaign One Westminster Day approaches next week, several on-campus organizations are promoting initiatives that community members can donate to — each focusing on different projects.
ASW is spearheading the Food Justice Initiative, a campaign allocating donations toward re-stocking the college’s basic needs pantry. The initiative is one example of more comprehensive efforts to address food and housing insecurity on campus.
According to a survey conducted in 2019, 32.5% of Westminster College student respondents said they were hungry because they couldn’t afford regular meals. More than half of respondents reported they sometimes or often couldn’t afford to eat balanced meals.
The survey was conducted by former ASW President Jazmin May, who served in that position during the 2018-19 academic year. The data was gathered from over 200 respondents with many reporting food or housing insecurities.
The push to support these students isn’t new. May spent two years in student government laying the groundwork for future projects, prioritizing these issues during her presidential term.
From failed legislation to the focus of ASW’s fundraising campaign
Efforts to increase resources pertaining to food and housing insecurity began in ASW Senate during the 2018-19 academic year. May, who was a senator at the time on the Student Life Committee, proposed legislation that would allow students to donate food through their meal plans.
“[The plan was] if students had leftover money in their meal plans, they could either buy bulk food items from Shaw and then leave it in the [ASW] office,” May said. “And then we could take it out to the community or to any students who need that.”
However, when the legislation was presented in November 2017, the Senate tabled the proposal until the senators could obtain more research and establish a specific goal.
Although the legislation didn’t pass, May didn’t let it go. The following semester, she ran for ASW president — and eventually won — prioritizing those issues in her campaign.
“Ever since I proposed that with the two other senators, I realized this is actually a bigger issue than we realized,” May said. “So then when I ran for student body president, I knew that was one of the things that I really wanted to target and focus on.”
The next academic year, May gathered data from students to understand how prevalent food and housing insecurities may be. From there, she brainstormed other ways ASW could get involved.
Conversations among the student government led to the proposal of a campus food pantry where students could grab a snack if they’re hungry or can’t afford a meal from the Shaw Student Center. Ideally, students could use their meal plans to donate bulk amounts of food, according to May.
However, May said she ran into several obstacles to kickstart these efforts. Some of these roadblocks stemmed from logistical problems, others on whether students would actually participate.
“I felt that if I could collect enough data to be like, ‘This is a real need,’ more people would pay attention to me,” May said. “So that’s why my first semester, I focused primarily on data collection and working with different people across campus. So it wasn’t just an ASW initiative, it was a whole [campuswide] initiative. My second semester, I focused on collaboration outside of Westminster.”
According to May’s data, more than half of student respondents reported they couldn’t afford to eat balanced meals. Another 10.8% admitted to abstaining from eating for an entire day because they didn’t have enough money — with some noting they did that multiple times a week.
During her last semester as president, the Senate passed legislation that acknowledged food insecurities on campus and committed the student government to seek solutions. The resolution, WS 2019.S05, was authored by May and sponsored by then-Senator Chris Ooley (who now serves as the ASW chief justice).
“My vision at that time, when I was president, was that this food pantry would eventually grow to be not just a place where students can get food, but also where they can get clothes if they need to do an interview,” May said. “Or they can get hygiene products. [It would be] a resource for all students on campus for anything they need.”
ASW continues efforts, allocating funds toward food insecurity advocate
The efforts continued through ASW, which resulted in a food pantry — located in the Bassis Student Center during the 2019-20 academic year — and financial assistance during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In its most recent budget, ASW also designated funds toward supporting a newly-created position on campus aimed to advocate for students experiencing insecurities.
“The goal is to allocate funding for that program specifically,” said Daud Mumin, ASW vice president. “[The position] gets institutional aid, but just being able to add to that to give her more flexibility to do more of that work on campus. It also gives ASW to give us the ability to address more concerns.”
Nayethzi Hernandez, who now works as the food and housing insecurity volunteer, said the position isn’t necessarily tied to ASW. Instead, it works as an independent entity through the college to establish a center that addresses student needs — specifically food and housing.
The office works closely with the Environmental Center Food Justice Group and other organizations on campus, whose previous efforts led to Hernandez’s official position.
“We want to do all of this through a trauma-informed lens, making sure that we reach traumatized students when they do reach out for help,” Hernandez said. “And that we do our programming and our basic need initiatives in a way that reduces stigma and also listens to student needs.”
The center operates through a “No Questions Asked” policy, according to Hernandez. Students can enter the office, sign in with their college-sponsored ID and take whatever resources they need. It also focuses on housing security, offering guidance to students who are in search of affordable housing.
Addressing the problem: De-stigmatizing food insecurity
Despite survey results indicating food insecurity among students, campus organizers report battling stigmas that have caused these problems to go unnoticed. Because Westminster can be type-cast as a more affluent community, according to Hernandez, it can hinder students from requesting resources.
“That’s the way things go unaddressed for so long,” she said. “We see kids walking around, rocking $3,000 sweaters and having very, very nice cars. Many things, outwardly, are very indicative of wealth. Then there are a lot of other students who see those things and expect that’s the norm. That just further silences them into an experience that in no way should ever be normal.”
While Jazmin May originally drafted legislation to address these issues, she said she began to notice the stigma against seeking help. As she began efforts to implement resources on campus, she said she wanted to expand the definition of food and housing insecurity.
“One of the things I always try to remember is that not everybody’s the same, all students on campus are so different,” May said. “They come from different backgrounds, different walks of life, all over the place. You can’t just assume that one thing works with every student. And you can’t just say, ‘Oh, blanket statement, all students on campus are fine,’ because that is not true.”
Students who occasionally skip meals to save money are food insecure, May said. Opting for an instant ramen dinner is also considered to be an indication of food insecurity because it’s used as an alternative to a balanced meal.
These issues were exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to increased student requests for financial support. In response, ASW sent out a survey — which is still gathering data — to get an update on food and housing insecurity.
Vice President Daud Mumin said the board wasn’t entirely sure how much money to allocate toward these resources in its most recent budget. However, he said it was made clear by student feedback that continued assistance was necessary.
As a result, ASW chose the Food Justice Initiative as its One Westminster Day project — not only to increase funds but also to inform students of available resources.
“I think the bigger part is the awareness piece,” Mumin said. “The money will be great, the funding will be great. But if people don’t understand the immediate need, then funding may not follow. So, the goal really was to bring more awareness to the program.”
The future of food insecurity efforts at Westminster
While progress has been made to address food and housing insecurity on campus, May said she initially worried it wouldn’t take off.
“After leaving Westminster, I kind of felt like I left a lot of things behind,” she said. “So at first, I didn’t even think about the work because my biggest [fear] was that I didn’t do anything.”
However, May said she was pleased to see efforts continue within ASW — and hopes to see it go even further.
“It was really nice to hear that my work just didn’t stop where I left it, and that other people said, ‘Yes, this is an actual need,’” she said. “And [they] continued taking it further and further. And that’s all I ever wanted: For somebody to believe that this is an actual need, and to continue to find ways to improve it and make sure that this is an accessible resource for students.”