Are UCSF Students Going Hungry?

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

“I feel guilty—I feel like this program isn’t meant for me.”

This was the response of one student who decided to forgo picking up her aid package through the new Food Security For Students (FSFS) program, announced by Vice-Chancellor Elizabeth Watkins in a campus-wide email on September 10th. The student, who wished to remain anonymous because of the possibility of negative perceptions from her family and other students, claimed she made this decision after a second email was sent out by Watkins a day later, who emphasized that the program was intended as an emergency resource.

Established to “ensure that our students have reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food,” the FSFS program allowed “any student requesting support” to receive a $50 gift card to Safeway and a $20 credit to UCSF’s Nutrition and Food Services, which could be then picked up at designated locations at the Parnassus and Mission Bay campuses.

In the second email, entitled “Important: Food Assistance Program Verification,” Watkins sought to clarify that the program was only for “emergency situations.” The email was prompted by the application of “almost 500 students—more than 15% of the student population.”

Watkins noted in her email, “If you don’t need help urgently, I ask you to consider holding off on requesting assistance from the program so that your fellow students with the most pressing needs can get the help they need in a timely fashion.”

In response to the follow-up email, the student felt conflicted about her application: “Maybe others need it more than me. I know I have a good support system from my family, but the fact remains that there’s a deficit.” She explained that large loan sums, the skyrocketing cost of living in San Francisco, and pressure to spend money for socialization together created a sense of financial instability. While she was not going hungry, the student explained, stress about spending money on food affected her both academically and socially. After Watkins’ clarification, she began to doubt whether she deserved the aid.

“I know this situation is not unique to me. I’ve been trying hard to budget, to not go out… the first time I went out to dinner [this year] was last week. … I feel guilty. I feel like I shouldn’t have completed the application.”

The second email seems to have also had a broader effect. Wendy Winkler Sawyer, Chief of Staff to the Vice-Chancellor and director of Graduate Student Financial Support, and Interim Director of Financial Aid Ron James are both part of the team administering the FSFS program. In email correspondence to Synapse, they confirmed that several hundred packets were cancelled after Watkins sent out the second email. Still, as of September 29, 436 packets have been picked up by students.

Winkler Sawyer and James emphasized that FSFS is a “pilot program” intended to “evaluate the level of food security among the student population and begin to address food inadequacies.” They reiterated that the purpose of the program was to “[provide] students with food security packages when they find themselves in a financial emergency.” Winkler Sawyer and James did acknowledge that “the initial email sent to students announcing the pilot FSFS program may not have stated the intended use as well as it could have.”

The campus-wide program, funded through the University of California, was largely based on an earlier-piloted School of Medicine program rolled out last spring (the medical school’s program continues in tandem with the campus-wide FSFS program). Pete Croughan, a second year medical student and member of both the Associated Students of the School of Medicine and the Graduate & Professional Student Association, advised the medical school’s program.

“[Food security] was essentially seen as compromising the effectiveness of the School of Medicine,” Croughan noted. He explained that the program was started with an emphasis on open access to all students, to make hunger a “never event.”

However, Croughan acknowledges that the medical school program, as well as the campus-wide FSFS program, will not solve the problem of food security and financial instability on campus. “This is intended as a bandaid,” he said.

The funding for the FSFS program was initially received as a one-time grant from the University of California of $75,000, as part of President Janet Napolitano’s Global Food Initiative. All UC campuses received this lump grant sum to address food insecurity on their campuses as they saw fit; some put it towards the development of food banks for students, while others, like UCSF, chose to directly offer support to their students. The FSFS program and its methodology were created by a committee of staff and students from all of the professional schools and graduate division as well as representatives from Student Academic Affairs.

With the constant rise in the Bay Area’s cost of living (reported previously) and the demand for the new FSFS program, one thing remains clear: the financial instability of students isn’t going anywhere. The current aid distributed has already eaten through half of the UC’s grant money. For those interested in applying, Winkler Sawyer and James state that UCSF will honor all applications and will petition campus leadership for more funding if necessary.