When you look at someone, there are many things that you might assume about that person. For instance, if I walk past you on the sidewalk and smile, you might presume that I’m in a good mood. There is a good chance that you are correct in your assumption, but there is also a chance that you are not. The only real way to find out if I’m in a good mood or not is to ask me.
There are many details of a person’s life that we do not see, and that’s perfectly normal because autonomy is necessary. But what if we challenged our assumptions about others by simply asking a question: Could this create a better learning environment for students?
To increase understanding and awareness, this blog post will explore an issue that is largely present on college campuses worldwide – food insecurity. We will explore the subject of food insecurity through the lens of a college student at NDSU.
One study… revealed that 48 percent of college students surveyed had experienced food insecurity in the previous month.”
Defining Food Insecurity
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the definition of food insecurity is “a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.”1
While we do not yet have statistics about students on our specific campus at NDSU, the studies of food insecurity on U.S. college campuses show alarming results.
One study consisting of 3,800 students across U.S. college campuses in 2016 revealed that 48 percent of college students surveyed had experienced food insecurity in the previous month.2
Another statistic in this study showed that over half of all first-generation students fit the criteria to be considered food insecure.
While these statistics are shocking and disheartening, this post’s goal is not to present raw data, but rather to gain insight into what food insecurity might look like for one of your students. Food insecurity can have many faces and can easily go unnoticed, just ask NDSU student, Madysen Ramlet.
Donate to the NDSU Foundation and Staff Senate Food Security Fund, which discreetly gets food into the hands of students with significant needs, either long term or short term due to COVID-19.
Madysen Ramlet was eleven years old when she began feeling the effects of food insecurity in her life. Her parents had recently divorced, and she and her two younger siblings primarily stayed with their mother. At school, Ramlet heard her friends talking excitedly about “family dinner night” and what they would be eating. Ramlet’s family did not have “family dinner night.” In fact, sometimes there was not enough food to have dinner at all. The school she attended offered breakfast and lunch, but Ramlet and her siblings were not sure if there would be another meal after lunchtime.
At an early age, Ramlet understood that food was the fuel her body needed to perform at its best. In high school, Ramlet ran competitively on her school’s track team. The day before a big track meet, Ramlet’s coach would lecture the team on the importance of nutrition. Athletes were encouraged to go home and eat a healthy meal, making sure to consume enough carbohydrates.
Realizing that she wouldn’t have sufficient food at home, Ramlet would often ask a friend if she could join their family for dinner on these occasions. It took a considerable amount of planning for Ramlet to eat like an athlete, and because of the stigma surrounding food insecurity, she did it in a way that no one would notice. This skill of hiding her lack of food became one that Ramlet would utilize as a college student here at NDSU.
Ramlet was the first member of her family to attend college. Her freshman year, she lived in the dorm and had a dining center pass (a requirement for all NDSU freshman). For the first time since she could remember, Ramlet did not have to worry about food. It felt like a huge weight had been lifted off of her shoulders. In her words, “I got used to it, and I thought that’s what it was going to be like all the years.”
Ramlet’s sophomore year, however, was a completely different experience from her freshman year. As many second-year college students do, Ramlet decided to move off-campus and into an apartment to gain independence and save money. This time was when she began noticing familiar feelings coming back into awareness, feelings of scarcity tied to food. In her recollection, Ramlet revealed, “I felt like I was going back to that stage of my life…not having enough food”. Ramlet was in a bind; she had rent, a utility bill, and other bills that took priority over buying groceries. She was struggling. Her grades started to slip. Describing this time, Ramlet shared, “It was harder to focus in class, but it was also harder to motivate myself to do the classwork … food naturally gives you energy, and so without having that, I just felt tired all the time … I knew the information on the exams, but I wasn’t able to retain the information because I didn’t have enough energy for my body.”
Ramlet’s academic advisor, doctoral student Meghan Yerhot, noticed her slipping grades and asked some general questions about how she was doing. Ramlet recalls: “I automatically got a great impression that she [Yerhot] wanted to listen to what I was saying. I think that made the biggest impact because I was able to be open.” As a result of Yerhot’s genuine concern and inquisitiveness, Ramlet was able to open up about her lack of food. Yerhot immediately referred Ramlet to resources such as Ruby’s Pantry in South Moorhead. She even took it one step further and drove Ramlet there herself.
Since confiding in her advisor, Ramlet has acquired increased confidence in her ability to provide for herself. Even so, her insecurity about food isn’t something that just goes away. It is common for individuals with food insecurity to feel the effects of the condition even after they have become food secure.3 Ramlet’s life experiences have driven her toward a career in health psychology. Her passion for and understanding of students’ needs is what motivates her to pursue a career as an advocate for health and student health.
It is common for individuals with food insecurity to feel the effects of the condition even after they have become food secure.”
What are some other things you might not know upon looking at someone?
Often, we help students with their class concerns and forget to look at the whole person. By viewing Ramlet as more than just a student, Yerhot went above and beyond her duties as an advisor and asked a simple question: “How are you doing?” She listened to the unspoken words behind Ramlet’s answers, discovering that she needed help. If we miss seeing students’ humanistic side, we might misinterpret their lack of focus or slipping grades as something simple, such as laziness or choice, a mistake none of us wants to make.
Meghan Yerhot believes that food insecurity is a more significant problem on our campus than most realize because students don’t necessarily understand that their struggle is a real condition. Yerhot told us, “It is kind of a confusing concept for students to grasp. They are in college, and it has been a part of their narrative that they are ‘supposed to’ struggle during this time. However, I do think this is an issue on our campus experienced by students who we may not hear from directly because of the stigma and limited resources available.”
What can we, as faculty and staff do to help understand and support our students? We believe that being open and genuine in relating to our students is the best way to show them that NDSU cares.
Yerhot gave us great advice about ways to do this. Yerhot says, “Take time to connect with students, be present, be engaged in what they are saying, or perhaps not saying. Not all students will come right out and tell you what is going on in their life. It is important to set the stage for students to feel comfortable to share and be vulnerable with you. Whether it be something in their personal life or struggling in a course, take time to listen. Your first interaction with a student will determine whether they will trust you enough to be open.” Yerhot goes on to say, “I always feel it is important to believe students and be compassionate in any way I can. It is an extremely stressful time for students who do not have adequate support while earning their degree. I was able to make my way through undergrad with the support of great professors. It doesn’t take much for a student to feel heard and welcomed. Therefore, the time we interact with students from the very first introduction is so crucial. Even if you find yourself not sure or comfortable dealing with a student’s concerns, there are many great people on campus who do care and will help!”
When you donate to the NDSU Foundation and Staff Senate Food Security Fund, you are making a direct impact on a student’s ability to succeed at NDSU.
- United States Department of Agriculture. (2019). Definitions of food security. Available online at: https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/food-nutrition-assistance/food-security-in-the-us/definitions-of-food-security.aspx
- Dubick, J., Mathews, B., & Cady, C. (2016). Hunger on campus: The challenge of food insecurity for college students. College and University Food Bank Alliance. Retrieved from: http://studentsagainsthunger.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Hunger_On_Campus.pdf
- Compton, Michael T,M.D., M.P.H. (2014). Food insecurity as a social determinant of mental health. Psychiatric Annals, 44(1), 46-51. doi: http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy.lib.ndsu.nodak.edu/10.3928/00485713-20140108-08
About the Author:
Holly DeVries is a Graduate Assistant in the Office of Teaching and Learning and is in the second year of pursuing her M.Ed. in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at NDSU. She holds a Bachelor of Music degree from Minnesota State University Moorhead and has worked in the music industry on both East and West Coasts before returning to the Midwest. Holly is passionate about diversity and inclusion and is specifically interested in LGBTQ+ advocacy.