Updated on 5/20/16 with additional comments from senior social worker Robin Kimberlin
By Leah Jones, Staff Writer and Jessie Eikmann, Staff Writer
When a fellow single mother asked University of Missouri—St. Louis student Laura Miller, senior, philosophy, if she knew of a place that she could use her Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card to buy food on campus, she did not know, but she became determined to find out. That search started over a year and a half ago, but it would prove to be a question that, according to Miller, “led me down this path that led me to all of these discoveries”—discoveries that would shock and frustrate her into tackling issues of state benefits and student hunger.
Miller began her search by asking faculty, her honors societies, and even Chancellor Thomas George, all of whom did not know how or where to use state food assistance on campus. Over the next few months, Miller attended meetings with Assistant Dean of Students Miriam Roccia, UMSL social worker Robin Kimberlin, and representatives of Sodexo, UMSL’s food service provider. Her initial discovery at those meetings was that EBT and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, are not accepted at any of UMSL’s dining venues. Despite her disappointment, she continued to broker meetings with Sodexo trying to figure out how to make that a possibility.
Miller had the idea that the Triton Store was akin to a gas station and therefore might be able to become certified to accept EBT/SNAP benefits. However, she was informed that the Triton Store does not sell items that satisfy all of the food groups needed to be certified. In order to be certified to accept EBT/SNAP benefits, a store must sell items from at least three of the four major food groups: breads/cereals, fruits/vegetables, meat/fish/poultry, and dairy products. Miller, thinking that the Triton Store could add a few items to meet that requirement, set up another meeting with Sodexo to discuss the possibility. According to Miller, when she asked if Sodexo could add a small jug of milk to the items they sold to meet the dairy requirement, “They said, ‘We prefer you don’t’.”
At that point, Miller began asking why Sodexo has the power to stop EBT/SNAP from being used on campus. She eventually found out Sodexo’s food service provider contract controls all food sold on campus and strictly limits students, faculty, or staff from bringing non-Sodexo food onto UMSL’s campus. Though she was denied access to actually seeing the contract, she was told that it stipulates that people must have a food permit or meet certain religious requirements if they want to bring outside food onto campus. Even food collected for food drives must leave UMSL’s campus before it can be distributed; doing otherwise would be a violation of Sodexo’s contract. Miller found this inability to actually see the contract frustrating, saying, “If you prevent somebody from seeing the contract that they’re governed by, you can tell them any rules are in it and they’ll never know the difference.”
Miller then broadened her research to investigate exactly how large the student hunger problem on campus really was. Her research found that 50 percent of all UMSL students qualify for a need-based federal Pell Grant. She also found that 52 percent of students who did not re-enroll in classes during the 2015 school year did not do so due to financial issues. Based on this, she concluded that it is likely that at least half of UMSL’s campus may face food insecurity.
Miller believes that UMSL’s response to such an overwhelming problem has largely been ineffectual. During Mirthweek’s Add-A-Dollar campaign, students could add one dollar to their dining purchases to aid UMSL students facing food insecurity, which went towards the Triton Hunger Relief fund.
The campaign was organized by Student Social Services in collaboration with Sodexo. Student Social Services is an office within the Division of Student Affairs that provides services and support to students that is centered on a social work model and theoretical base. Student Social Services assists students facing food insecurity by providing snack packs that can be picked up weekly from four different locations on campus, case management and action plans for attaining food security provided by social work interns, and assistance for those applying for SNAP benefits. Student Social Services will also begin their new initiative in the fall to aid students facing food insecurity made possible by the Triton Hunger Relief fund.
Robin Kimberlin, UMSL’s senior social worker, said, “Student Social Services is trying to understand the issue of college student food insecurity on a national level and what it looks like here at UMSL. We want our programs and efforts to be research and data informed and to always have the students’ need at the front of our minds. We are giving special thought to how to best connect students with community resources and what we can do to fill any gaps in their needs, especially ones they experience while on campus. We are also currently examining barriers to students seeking help and using resources that are available.”
Miller found the program unsettling. She discovered that the money raised by the campaign will be converted to Sodexo dining dollars, and that to obtain some of that fund, students would have to go to Student Social Services to receive an unspecified amount from the fund.
Miller believes that the program is ethically problematic because, she said, “[UMSL] has now made the poor an income stream for Sodexo on campus knowing that they’re one of the hindrances to state benefits and we gave it to them. And we ask students, half of which are struggling, to fund it. So the very students that are hurt by the lack of EBT are the ones funding the program for the company that’s preventing EBT.”
Kimberlin said, “We understand there are student concerns with this program, but can assure the campus that careful planning and consideration is going into the development of the program processes and logistics. We are looking to other universities that have successful programs and our own program expertise to put together an effective program.”
While Miller continues to fight for EBT/SNAP use on campus, she is in the process of opening MOSAIC, a food access point where UMSL students facing food insecurity can pick up a snack between classes or food to bring home. Because of the rules governing food drives on campus, she approached the Normandy United Methodist Church across the street from campus. They agreed that Miller could use a space in the basement for MOSAIC. Miller said, “It’s going to be a food pantry, but it’s also going to be a place to stop in and get a snack while you’re between classes so that way you don’t have to go hungry on campus and I’m not giving you a can of potatoes that you can’t cook.” Miller said, “It’s going to be help between classes, to eat while you’re trying to study.” Students will not have to explain their circumstances to utilize MOSAIC; they can come in, pick up some food, no questions asked. Her target date for opening MOSAIC is August 3.
In the meantime, Miller presented her findings about student hunger and Sodexo at the Undergraduate Research Symposium (URS) on April 29. She hopes that through the URS and through spreading the word about MOSAIC, she can increase awareness about the student hunger problem and the need to rework Sodexo’s monopoly of on-campus food. “Maybe we can help some students stay enrolled. Or give them hope that the campus doesn’t just see them as tuition, and sees them as persons with challenges that are struggling to be here,” said Miller.
Additional Reporting by Lori Dresner