George Mason University To Address Food Insecurity On Campus

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Food insecurity is a pervasive, compelling problem for many university students, including at George Mason University.

Studies have shown that nationally, one in three students struggles to afford their next meal. The problem is largely unseen, particularly among student populations—like Mason’s—that include adult learners or students who are balancing their studies with employment or taking care of family members, causing them to put their personal health on a lower priority. Moreover, food insecurity may imperil that education: nationally, students experiencing food insecurity are 43% less likely to graduate.

Mason Vision Day is an annual opportunity for the campus community to come together to identify and support a deserving initiative on campus. For this year’s event on April 6, 2023, Mason is turning its focus to food insecurity, working to support already-established initiatives and exploring other ways to alleviate student food concerns.

“It’s really difficult to concentrate and succeed at your highest potential as a college student when you’re experiencing food insecurity,” said Matthew Carlos, assistant director for student support and community outreach at Mason’s Student Support and Advocacy Center (SSAC). The SSAC offers resources to Mason students in a host of areas, including a focus on basic needs insecurity.

“Food insecurity means that an individual has inconsistent access to enough food for their daily life,” Carlos said. And its effects are profound. Food insecurity can lead to nutrition deficiencies, resulting in physical ailments including hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease. It can impair the emotional development that naturally takes place between the ages of 18-22. The uncertainty of not knowing where a next meal is coming from causes chronic stress and can lead to increases in anxiety and depression. Research also has linked food insecurity to reduced cognitive function, poor sleep, and challenges in concentration.

Because of the stigma attached to food insecurity, it is difficult to get a handle on the full extent of the problem. Mason’s University Life office houses SSAC and operates the Patriot Pantry, which allows enrolled students to obtain nonperishable food and hygiene items. The number students using the services of the Patriot Pantry over the past three years has increased 172%.

“About 500 unique students each year take advantage of the pantry,” said Rose Pascarell, vice president for University Life. “Some of those are students who experience episodes in their life and come in one or a few times, but many of the students are seeking assistance on a weekly basis.”

SSAC has been working on ways to meet the need, including the Patriot Pantry as well as partnerships with organizations and businesses in the Mason community.

Professor Dann Sklarew of the Department of Environmental Science and Policy supports the SSAC’s work. He teaches capstone research course EVPP 480 Sustainability in Action and found that his students’ research projects were turning to food insecurity among their classmates. He and his students became “more and more involved with trying to understand the magnitude of the problem and what can be done about it,” he said

He agrees that a variety of possible solutions is the key. “We could really get to a point where everybody who isn’t getting enough calories or nutrition would have some options through the university or through other means,” Sklarew said.

“Mason is doing a fantastic job of reducing that stigma that’s still associated with food insecurity,” said Carlos. “Whether that’s through initiatives from President Washington and the Patriot Pantry challenge, student government, other leaders on campus, there’s a lot of positive energy when it comes to reducing and eliminating food insecurity here at Mason.”