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Access is not Equity: Expanding Cultural Food Resources at University of Washington Tacoma

By Christine Stevens, Phd, University of Washington Tacoma (UWT)

Students in my classes were sharing with me about skipping meals and lack of funds to buy food even working full time. They were discouraged how hunger affected their ability to be successful in classes. While I brought food to my classes, I wanted to explore if this was a university wide issue. In 2014, I conducted a survey of all UWT students and found that 33% of students had low food security even with full time employment and federal educational loans. I approached the Center of Equity and Inclusion and we cleaned out a closet and started a food pantry.

As the food pantry expanded, we wanted to explore how to make this an inclusive environment with equitable practices for student success. In 2018 we conducted another survey to explore basic needs and sense of belonging. The results of this survey indicated that the number of food insecure students had risen to 39% and the burden of food insecurity was experienced by historically marginalized students. Another finding was that these students used the pantry but wished there were more culturally relevant food.

The COG grant was instrumental in allowing us to explore and address how to create a welcoming sense of community with cultural food. We worked with the First-Generation and identity students groups to develop recruitment plans, surveys, and conduct focus groups to explore the needs of students

The most surprising responses in all the focus groups was how important spices were to a “feeling of home”. One participant echoed many during the focus group: “ I cannot believe that you are even asking this question. I knew the Pantry did a good job but this question about foods that remind me of home . makes me feel seen”

We started to order food requested and the UWT Giving Garden obtained a new greenhouse to grow requested spices .We also found out that we needed to make changes to respect the faith of Muslim students about offering Halal (permitted under Islamic dietary guideline) food. During the last year of campus closure, we offered food delivery to students who could request halal, kosher, and food that supported them during campus closure.

During the pandemic, we realized that campus food pantries cannot do this work alone but must develop coalitions of community members that also focus on food insecurity. In March 2021, UWT held a Community of Practice in Food Justice that included food distributors, farmers, food bank supervisors, community gardens, and community members to explore how to address the need access to cultural food including spices and Halal foods requested by students and community member. This Community of Practice is working together to develop a sustainable system for access for cultural foods for UWT food pantry as well as all food banks in Pierce County .Campus Food pantries need to think about equitable practices, so students do not have to leave their culture at the door of college.

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