Innovate@BU Is Taking On College Hunger This Semester
Innovate@BU Is Taking On College Hunger This Semester
Campus Hunger Challenge invites teams to think of creative solutions for a chance at a $10,000 prize to implement their idea
The joke about college kids subsisting on ramen noodles masks a grim reality: approximately one-third of young adults in the United States go hungry every day. Many are forced to decide which meals they can skip, while others eat less than they should in an effort to stretch their limited budgets.
Now, Innovate@BU, Boston University’s incubator equipping the BU community with innovation skills, is working to solve this problem, both through a BU Hub cocurricular course and a monthlong Campus Hunger Challenge, which is seeking inventive ideas from BU students and alumni that can help local 19- to 26-year-olds get the food they need to thrive. The winning team will receive $10,000 in funding, and semifinalists will receive $500, with the prize money to be used to implement the teams’ ideas.
“Hunger is a huge issue, but it’s a distribution problem, not a resource problem,” says Micaelah Morrill, director of external relations at Innovate@BU, who came up with the idea of having the incubator “hack” hunger this semester. “We picked the age range of 19 to 26, because you age out of a lot of programs and opportunities at 18. At 26, you get off your parents’ insurance. You likely have no dependents during this time, and therefore you don’t have access to very much.” (Programs such as the Women, Infants, and Children Nutrition Program [WIC] support expectant and postpartum mothers and children up to five years old.)
Hunger on college campuses has been a growing issue. In 2019, Temple University’s Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, which studies college students’ economic challenges, surveyed nearly 167,000 college students nationwide and found that during the past month 39 percent of respondents had experienced food insecurity—defined by the US Department of Agriculture as a lack of consistent access to enough food to maintain a healthy, active lifestyle.
The pandemic has only exacerbated the issue. In fall 2020, the Hope Center found that students who had COVID-19 were 1.7 times more likely to experience food insecurity than those who weren’t sick.
Gerry Fine, executive director of Innovate@BU and a College of Engineering professor of the practice, says the high number of college students who experience some form of food insecurity is “an astounding figure that is not generally understood or spoken about. We know that students on our campus face the same issue, and although we don’t know the extent of the problem, we believe that innovation can help solve it. So, for us, this is simply an opportunity to practice what we preach—using innovation to positively impact the community in which we live.”
In addition to the Campus Hunger Challenge, cohosted with the YMCA of Greater Boston, this semester Innovate@BU is running a noncredit Hub cocurricular course, Community Changemaking in Boston, offering students a chance to investigate a social challenge in the city and work towards a solution. Students in the Hub course weren’t required to join the challenge, but since Innovate@BU staff was doing extensive research and forming relationships in this particular topic, it made sense to have the two complement each other, Morrill says.
For the challenge, teams will be judged on how well their proposed solution will impact the Greater Boston area, with extra points given if the solution can be replicated elsewhere. The application deadline for the challenge has already closed, and reviewers are now choosing four semifinalists who will deliver their final pitches on April 12.
The teams are charged with thinking of a program or service, policy recommendation or campus initiative, tech-driven solution, physical product, or creative media or art. Their ideas must address food issues, such as access, nutrition, cultural considerations, and redistributing excess food.
A spring break dedicated to service
During last week’s spring break, 14 students either enrolled in the Hub course or the Campus Hunger Challenge (or both), learning directly from leading organizations addressing food insecurity in the Boston area. The hope was that they could use the experiences and talks to inform their own innovative solutions to fight hunger.
They visited food pantries and distribution centers, such as About Fresh, where they helped pack trucks with fresh, affordable food that would then be distributed in neighborhoods throughout Boston. They also chatted with reps from the Greater Boston Food Bank and the American Red Cross and met with staff at the offices of US Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and State Representative Andy Vargas (Pardee’15) (D-3rd Essex). Vargas is lead sponsor of a bill that would establish a statewide hunger-free campus initiative to address college student food insecurity.
The students began their week volunteering at Wheelock College of Health & Human Development’s Community Cares: A Food & Essentials Pantry, a service open to the entire BU community that provides free food and hygiene products. In a small room in the basement of the Wheelock building at 2 Silber Way, the pantry was shuttered during the pandemic and only recently reopened. The day the Innovate@BU students visited, they split their time between organizing and cleaning out the food pantry and helping with some much-needed marketing to raise awareness of the program.
After stacking rows of canned garbanzo beans and packages of peanut butter crackers, the students headed upstairs to a Wheelock classroom to chat with Valentina Varela (Wheelock’21), Wheelock assistant director of graduate student services, who leads Community Cares. She asked the Innovate@BU team to help brainstorm how to get the word out and erase the stigma that students may feel visiting the pantry. The students offered suggestions for a new name and a revised logo, tips on how to partner with Greek Life and athletic teams looking for a community service project, and advice on how to advertise the service to students.
“I feel like having to come to a basement to get the things you need is very limiting, that would discourage me from visiting,” said Alix Paredes (CAS’23), during the brainstorming session.
Varela agreed the team isn’t happy with the space being so out of the way. “It builds more to the taboo,” she said. “No one sees it, just the people who need it—it’s like a secret group.”
“What about bringing it to groups around campus?” suggested Marlee Mullane (Wheelock’22). “That would be huge.”
Later that afternoon, the students met with representatives from BU’s Terrier Meal Share, a program that allows students to donate their extra guest dining hall meals to students in need. The process is completely confidential, and Auxiliary Services matches the donations.
“We’re working to connect people who weren’t previously working together,” Morrill says. “We have lots of good work going on, but there’s still lots more to do. I’m just excited to see what people come up with.”
The Campus Hunger Challenge finale is Tuesday, April 12, at 5:30 pm, at Kilachand Honors College, 91 Bay State Rd., Boston.
Are you a BU student experiencing food insecurity? Check out this list of resources compiled by Innovate@BU for help.
BU students in need of short-term assistance for food can also request assistance through the Dean of Students office, using this form, and a University staff member will be in touch within one business day. If there is an immediate need, students are advised to contact the Dean of Students office in person. Students in continuing need of support are asked to contact Financial Assistance, the University Service Center, or the Dean of Students office.
I used to work for YMCA of Greater Boston and I frankly find it ironic that they are involved in the issue of campus hunger. Many of their employees were students or recent grads, and we were paid so poorly we could barely afford to survive. I lived on pasta and ramen; several times an established adult on staff gave cash out of their own wallet to a student/recent grad employee so they wouldn’t starve that week. One of my coworkers was homeless and living off of stale pastries from the grocery store’s markdown bin. Many of us were gaunt and visibly malnourished.
And yes, we were *all* capped at 15 minutes under benefits eligibility.
“At 26, you get off your parents’ insurance.” Yah, if you have parents who have health insurance.
I graduated BU in 2020 and was food insecure for almost the entire time I was there. I moved off campus to save money, worked 40 hours a week, and sustained myself off poptarts from the GSU. I now work at a non profit doing hunger relief. I’m glad to see more resources for terriers. While yes, most BU students have wealthy parents that provide for them- we cannot forget about the students that are struggling.