Food insecurity working group proposes low-cost grocery store

Group also suggests improving shuttle system, establishing contracts with delivery services

The Food Insecurity Solutions Working Group (FISWG) proposed a low-cost grocery store as one solution to aid students who face food insecurity in a recent report posted on the Division of Student Life website in late March.

Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart PhD ’88 and Vice President and Dean for Student Life Suzy Nelson created the FISWG to investigate the issue of food insecurity on campus. The group met throughout the fall semester and IAP to review survey data, consult members of the MIT community, and finally come up with a proposal.

In the 2017 Student Quality of Life Survey, about 10 percent of students indicated that they went to bed hungry at least once in the previous week due to a lack of money for food.

However, the FISWG found that the financial barrier is just one part of a complex issue.The report states that “some students miss meals because they are working or involved in activities and do not have the time to seek out affordable food options on or around campus.”

The FISWG also noted that the distance between dining halls and main campus is another factor that limits accessibility to food.

“[Students are] making a choice. Do I take 15 minutes to take a break from work to get food, or do I continue working? And because many of the food options are on the west side of campus, students are making the decision that ‘I’m just going to stay and work rather than get food.’” David Randall, chair of the FISWG, said in an interview with The Tech.

Lack of education about cooking affordable, healthy meals is another problem that contributes to food insecurity, according to the report. “When you talk to students and you ask them, ‘Do you know how to cook for yourself?’ and then ‘Do you know how to cook for yourself economically and nutritiously?’ students say that’s hard for them. So you hear about students who cook ramen or mac-and-cheese. They cook less nutritious food options because they’re cheaper,” Randall said.

The report suggested a low-cost grocery store located on campus as a solution that could give students convenient, healthy options with affordable prices.

Mark Hayes, director of campus dining, said in an interview with The Tech that a working group is aiming to open a low-cost grocery this upcoming fall semester. The group includes MIT students and collaborates with the Undergraduate Association and the student group Class Awareness, Support, and Equality (CASE). The store could alleviate some of the concerns stemming from the closing of Star Market and the high pricing at LaVerde’s.

Hayes differentiated the low-cost grocery from a food pantry that relies on donations. “[Food pantries] tend to have non-perishable items because they don’t want to handle refrigeration and freezers. We’re looking to do more fresh food from a nutrition standpoint,” Hayes said.

According to Hayes, collaboration with MIT’s dining vendor will let the grocery store purchase bulk foods at a low cost and sell them to students at the lowest possible prices.  

Aside from the low-cost grocery store, other suggestions by the FISWG include improving the shuttle system to nearby grocery stores like Costco and establishing contracts with delivery services — such as Instacart and Amazon Fresh — to make their services more affordable to students.

“We’re going to act on most of [the suggestions] because I thought that their proposals were very reasonable,” Nelson said in an interview with The Tech.

In helping students who face food insecurity, the FISWG also sees SwipeShare, a program that allows students to donate guest meal swipes to other students in need, as playing a big role. “I think SwipeShare has been a tremendous success,” Randall said. “We’ve had roughly 1,000 donations, real donations. We’ve given about half of those out.”  

Peter Cummings, DSL executive director for administration, said in an interview with The Tech that SwipeShare will be modified so that students can donate regular meal swipes in addition to guest swipes, which matters because MIT’s new meal plans for next year do not all include guest swipes. “We’re going to come up with a way to do that so that SwipeShare continues and thrives,” Cummings said.

MIT’s chapter of the national student organization Donor to Diner (D2D) is also working to raise awareness of on-campus food insecurity and resources for students. “Because when you normally think of food insecurity, you associate it with the homeless or people in Third World countries. A lot of people don’t associate it with students and so that’s one thing we’re trying to raise awareness of,” Varsha Sridhar ’21, a member of D2D, said in an interview with The Tech.

CASE is also working to implement food pantries in dorms. They recently installed pantries in Random Hall, East Campus, Burton-Conner, MacGregor, and New House.

Bettina Arkhurst ’18, the CASE food insecurity head, explained in an interview with The Tech that the pantries will contain donated food from CASE, and that students can add food as well. If the trial run goes well, the pantries will continue through the school year and expand into all dorms.

A major goal of CASE is to reduce the stigma around seeking help. “What we think others will think of us holds us back,” Arkhurst said. “Overall, we approach it [the food pantry] with this idea to make it as easy and low barrier as possible for people to get the food they need.”

Any students who have feedback or questions about the food insecurity programs that CASE organizes can email