Brown to implement new measures to strengthen food security

As college students across the nation contend with challenges accessing healthy, affordable food, the University will provide meals during spring break at no additional cost and require all sophomores to enroll in meal plans.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — A 2018 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office noted that college students across the country are experiencing food insecurity. Among the causes cited are rising college costs, the increasing percentage of students from low-income families enrolling in college, and federal and state financial aid not fully covering all college costs for students from those families.

In that national context — and as part of an ongoing effort to ensure that all students have equitable access to healthy food — Brown University will provide meals during spring break to all students on a meal plan starting in the 2019-20 academic year. Brown will also require all sophomores to enroll in a meal plan, an extension of an initiative launched last year that requires all first-year students to do so. 

The changes to dining policy were made based on recommendations from a working group convened by University Provost Richard M. Locke and comprising students, faculty and staff. Food insecurity among college students has emerged as a significant national issue, Locke said, and the group was charged with assessing the prevalence and causes of food insecurity among undergraduate, graduate and medical students at Brown and providing recommendations based on those findings.

“We know that students on campuses across the country, including at Brown, experience varying degrees of food insecurity,” Locke said. “We’re committed to addressing these issues so that all students are able to take full advantage of their Brown educational experiences without the challenge of worrying about costs, logistics or time needed to access healthy food options.”

Brown’s efforts to confront challenges to food security date to an earlier committee established in 2018 by the Office of the Dean of the College. Based on initial recommendations from that group and beginning in the 2018-19 academic year, Brown required all first-year undergraduates to enroll in a comprehensive full meal plan that includes 20 meals per week. For those with high financial need (any undergraduate who has a $0 parent contribution), the University provided additional scholarship funds to meet the costs of the full meal plan. 

Data gathered in early 2019 found that in the wake of that new requirement, reports of food insecurity among first-year students were lowest among all Brown undergraduates, said Marisa Quinn, chief of staff to the provost and chair of the follow-up working group. Based on that finding, the group recommended extending the requirement to sophomores. They will be required to enroll, at a minimum, in a 14-meal plan, and encouraged to enroll in a 20-meal plan or a “Flex 460” plan, which provide the maximum number of meal options.

“Given the success of the required meal plan for first-year students, the limitations of cooking facilities in residence halls and the value that meal plans have for facilitating community among all students living on campus, we believe that aligning our policies with most of our peers and requiring sophomores to have a meal plan will further efforts to ensure that all Brown students are able to focus fully on being students,” Quinn said.

Approximately 65 percent of sophomores are already enrolled in a meal plan, she noted, with most opting for a full, comprehensive meal plan. For students with high financial need (those with a $0 parent contribution), the University will provide scholarship funds to meet the costs of the full meal plan.

The working group also recommended that students enrolled in meal plans receive meals over spring break at no additional cost, a recommendation the University will adopt as well beginning in 2019-20.

Many students, including and especially those from low-income families, stay on campus over the one-week spring break each March and find it difficult to access affordable, healthy food, said Shanze Tahir, president of Brown’s Undergraduate Council of Students, which advocated for this change in policy.

“We are very appreciative that the University ultimately moved forward with the recommendation,” Tahir said. “Many students, particularly first-generation and low-income students, have expressed how difficult and stressful it is to find food on campus when they have to stay at Brown for break. Decreasing food insecurity on campus has a positive impact on the entire Brown student community, as having reliable access to food is a basic right that every student should have and feel assured about.”

The working group gathered data to inform its recommendations by surveying undergraduate, graduate and medical students and by analyzing student requests through the University’s E-Gap program, which provides emergency funding to students to cover urgent, unanticipated non-academic needs. 

The data showed that students at Brown experience food insecurity at varying degrees based on a wide range of factors. While having insufficient funds was one factor in reducing access to food, a lack of time to shop for groceries was another root cause for food insecurity, the data indicated. Additionally, certain groups of graduate students, including medical students and master of fine arts students, reported higher rates of food insecurity. 

Based on the information gathered, the working group also recommended establishing a tailored meal plan pilot program specifically for graduate students; exploring options for strengthening access to affordable groceries for graduate students and those living off campus; and enhancing the information provided to students about how to maximize use of their meal plans. 

The University will continue to assess and explore these options during the 2019-20 academic year, Quinn said.