At Rosario’s Place, food on the shelves comes and goes like a tide. When staff at the Women’s Center at Washington State University, which manages Rosario’s, puts out a call for donations, stock rises and then falls again as students take what they need to get by.
Rosario’s Place has a private entrance on the Pullman campus, and that simple fact, says Women’s Center director Amy Sharp, reduces stigma; no one asks who you are or what you are doing. You just come in, take what you need (or leave what you can). In addition to food, Rosario’s also stocks baby and toddler supplies and menstrual hygiene products.
Sharp’s colleague at the center, Jennifer Murray, recalls one woman from this past summer. The woman in the hijab, she says, was certainly grateful to be able to take a few things so that her family would have food that night. What really touched Murray, though, is when the woman said that having a place to come, a place where people cared regardless of where you are from, meant nearly as much as the provisions.
Murray says that over the summer many international students come to Rosario’s. “Their student visas prevent them from working,” she explains, and with graduate student stipends on hold during summer, things can get dire.
Whether it’s through Rosario’s Place in Wilson-Short Hall, or the Campus Pantry on the WSU Spokane campus, or one of the many other pantries located at WSU campuses across the state, Cougs are feeding Cougs, and finding innovative local solutions to gather and distribute food.
While donating food looks like a simple act of kindness, it is, in fact, just the tip of an iceberg, as complex and as fraught with logistical difficulties as the American food system itself. Donations of shelf-stable foods tend to come at peak times like the winter holidays and not in the summer, when the need is often greatest. And though Washington state is an agricultural paradise, it looks like a piece of Swiss cheese when it comes to food accessibility. Food deserts, areas without a grocery store within a reasonable distance, mean many people subsist on processed foods with lower nutritional density than fresh foods offer.
In Pullman and surrounding Whitman County, the percentage of people who are considered food insecure is right about 20 percent, while the poverty rate is almost 17 percent, significantly higher than the national average. Student food insecurity, along with loan debt, is on the rise nationwide as the cost of higher education soars.
Food insecurity has no easy solutions and no one-size-fits-all definitions. It often means missing meals, or eating food that is high in calories but low in nutrition. Food insecurity means having to prioritize, for example, paying rent or buying gas over purchasing food—because low-income families, contrary to a popular misconception, are not rich in time while poor in money. Many low-income families have adults working multiple jobs, with little time to cook and barely enough money to cover basic expenses. Eating fresh food requires both income and time to prepare. When time is scarce, fast food, with its high caloric content and convenience, is a logical but risky stopgap.
Pablo Monsivais, a public health nutrition expert and associate professor in WSU’s Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine, points out that food insecurity is a public health problem. Thinking of food banks and other programs as charity not only stigmatizes recipients but obfuscates the fact that we all pay, in the long run, for one another’s ill health. Whether it’s through increased healthcare costs or loss of economic productivity, not having enough to eat—or not enough nutrition-dense foods—is a cost we all share.
Especially in rural settings, where people may know each other, the cost of that stigma may outweigh health concerns. “If someone sees me in here,” says WSU sociologist Sarah Whitley (’07 MS, ’12 PhD Socio.), “how is that going to make me look? If there is a job opportunity, am I going to be deemed unworthy because I took a handout from a food bank?”
She taught for a few years at Cal State University in Fresno, in the heart of one of the planet’s biggest food producing regions, the Central Valley. “That really opened my eyes, the scale of ag,” says Whitley.
And yet, much of the area surrounding the city was a food desert. “A lot of rural communities don’t have any retail anymore, so folks drive many miles to get food, and that transportation cost cuts into their already constrained food budget.”
Monsivais and Whitley say that people have the knowledge to eat healthfully, and will if given the opportunity. Both the sociologist and the public health expert point out that the growing obesity epidemic is connected to food insecurity, as are a host of other health issues.
“There’s all sorts of research that talks not only about how food insecurity affects physiological development, including brain development, but about emotional and mental development as well,” Whitley says. As Monsivais points out, the nutrients in food—such as calcium, potassium, magnesium, as well as fats—“are all essential components of our nervous system, including our brains, which are predominantly made of fat.”
“Health takes input,” Monsivais adds. “You’ve got to have the energy, the time, the skills, the money to engage in the behaviors that lead to health. And a lot of that is diet.”
Ryan Lazo, the community partnerships coordinator at the WSU Center for Civic Engagement, works with food activists throughout Whitman County and beyond. With Joe Astorino (’15 PhD Socio.), the director of Pullman’s Community Action Center, Lazo runs a food recovery program in collaboration with WSU Dining Services. They take food from dining halls that would otherwise go to waste to a commercial kitchen at the CAC, which is then distributed to the county’s many food pantries.
The food recovery program, Lazo says, “started small, but it’s growing.” At a 2015 Pac-12 cross country meet, Lazo and his partners “recovered leftover fruit and granola bars, and took them to the food bank.” Since then, the program has grown and stabilized. The recovery team even takes lentil chili left over from Pullman’s annual Lentil Festival, packages it in family-sized portions, and freezes and distributes it to those in need.
“Now, on campus, things are fairly standardized,” says Lazo. “Recoverable food is gathered at the Southside dining hall and once a week it is delivered to the CAC for repackaging.” From there, Astorino says, it is distributed around the county.
But distances are great. Astorino says that a full circuit of Whitman County food pantries takes a couple of days. Keeping perishable food fresh is a problem.
Indeed, the logistics of food distribution inspired Nils Johnson, a WSU Extension educator in Stevens County in the remote northeast of the state, to a cool solution.
Johnson, a former high-tech engineer turned food activist, designed a mobile refrigerated trailer so, instead of having to take a refrigerated semi-truck into remote areas with a commercial driver at the wheel, the CoolPup—as Johnson calls the built-to-purpose rig—can be towed behind any six-cylinder vehicle.
Changing the way food is distributed is one way we’ll beat food insecurity, Johnson says. And it’ll provide a double bang. Johnson describes a loop through Ferry, Pend Oreille, and Stevens Counties, a 250-mile round trip, that encompasses food pantries, as well as rural schools and hospitals—all hungry for fresh food. It also crosses paths with dozens of small farmers hungry for a market.
The CoolPup trailer means volunteers can take cash, from either donations or grants, to the farmers, buy their fresh produce, and then distribute it to clients. It’s a neat trick, an economic development and alleviating a public health problem with a single tool.
And, at about $7,000 or $8,000 each, CoolPups are not out of reach to organizations dealing with rural food distribution. Johnson says that his colleagues on the Olympic Peninsula are also eager to bring the CoolPup to their region.
At first glance, efforts to combat food insecurity appear haphazard. A closer look, though, reveals that there is a patchwork of hyperlocal volunteers and activists all pushing to remove stigma, increase access, and empower small farms.
Brown notes that there’s been an expansion of the number of small farms on the Palouse. Statistics also show more women and people of color are getting into farming. That changes the complexion of the region in multiple ways: vast fields of wheat grown for a global market are now interspersed with smallholder row crops and animal agriculture.
And, Johnson says, selling that small-farm-grown produce to food pantries and rural schools, hospitals, and markets creates a virtuous cycle that means everyone eats better.
Lazo says that students engaged in the food recovery and other programs gain tools “to be change makers. Wherever they go in the world,” WSU students who have participated will be able “to face these issues with a sense of efficacy, sensitivity, and caring.”
Palouse Fresh Food Project — Connects students, resources to those fighting food insecurity: cce.wsu.edu/programs/palouse-food-project
A Guide to Food Recovery Programs — Things to consider when starting a food-recovery program: magazine.wsu.edu/extra/food-recovery-guide
Center for Civic Engagement — Fosters campus-community partnerships: cce.wsu.edu
Food Atlas for Puget Sound Region — How to eat local in the Puget Sound region: eatlocalfirst.org/food-atlas
Food security at WSU: Food maps, resources at Washington State University, and how you can help people get enough food