While the mission to facilitate and provide basic needs security to our campus community is always vital, recent economic inflation and continued shortages in housing and supply-chain have compounded and increased the need for these services.
We spoke with representatives from the Basic Needs Collective (BNC) and the Eccles Health Sciences Education Building (EHSEB) FeedU Pantry Satellite, who shared more information on how these resources came to be and how you can access them.
They also shared some ways you can help support, like donating to the food drives happening across campus to support the FeedU Pantry locations. With the use of this resource up significantly, physical donations of non-perishable food items and hygiene products are greatly needed. You can also provide support through a financial donation to the Basic Needs Collective.
A huge thanks to Sarah Elizabeth Garza-Levitt (she/they), Associate Director, Basic Needs Collective and Marina Knysheva (she/her), MS2, Spencer Fox Eccles School of Medicine and EHSEB FeedU Pantry Representative, for taking the time to talk with University of Utah Health Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion.
Tell us about the Basic Needs Collective and the EHSEB FeedU Pantry. What led you to and continues to drive your work with both?
Sarah Elizabeth Garza-Levitt: As a staff person here at the University of Utah, I started working on the Homeless Student Taskforce about six years ago. The chair of that task force, other leaders from the group, and I started talking about how we could proactively address students' needs. As a group, we were managing urgent crisis needs. Yet we also wanted to start working with students from a more preventative approach. In 2019, we founded the Basic Needs Collective (BNC). In April 2022, we opened our BNC spaces in the University of Utah Student Union which offers virtual and in-person, comprehensive resource intake, assessment, and referral.
Marina Knysheva: I went to the U for undergrad and knew through word of mouth that the Basic Needs Collective was forming in 2019. Then, when I got to the School of Medicine during my first year, I noticed that we had the EHSEB satellite pantry, and I was curious about how it was managed, where the food was coming from, and how I could help.
Earlier this year, I applied through the Wellness Student Interest Group to be the food pantry representative at the School of Medicine. I spent my summer doing the deliveries from the Union FeedU Pantry to keep the EHSEB food pantry stocked. Once school started, that became a bit harder, but we have someone able to stock it at least once a week, and I help as I am able.
On the health sciences campus, we have a unique situation in which lower campus is sometimes inaccessible to us simply because of the hours we have to be at the hospital or be here at school. I think there is a bigger financial burden to be in medical school, nursing school, or pharmacy school, so the need for food and hygiene products is even greater up here.
Sarah Elizabeth Garza-Levitt: The EHSEB FeedU Pantry Satellite was founded in February 2020. Ben Chenot, the student director of the main FeedU Pantry at the time, Jordan Franchina MS4, and I got together to talk about how to meet students' needs, particularly on the health campus, because of exactly what Marina said. Students' clinicals, class time, working graveyard in the hospital—their ability to get down to the main campus FeedU Pantry, especially during business hours- wasn't feasible. We organized a workgroup of health campus leaders and students and founded the satellite pantry two weeks before the COVID-19 shutdown. We were able to keep the pantry open during the shutdown as an essential service.
In partnership with University Hospital Nutrition Care Services, we established a food recovery program where their edible food waste is recovered and redirected through the pantry. Rodney Evans, the inventory regulation specialist, delivers that food from the hospital to our pantry three times a week. That is how we're able to provide a lot of fresher foods, such as packaged sandwiches, yogurts, fruit cups, and sushi items. This partnership has been very successful. To date, 30,000 pounds of edible food waste has been recovered and redistributed through the pantry, which would have ended up in the landfill.
Can you discuss the continued need for the BNC services and FeedU Pantry, particularly on the health sciences campus?
Marina Knysheva: With recent donations, Sarah Elizabeth and I have been able to go to the store and buy hygiene and food products which have gone so fast. Everything we put into the pantry disappears so quickly, and that alone demonstrates the need.
Sarah Elizabeth Garza-Levitt: We purchased items with funding from a donor's generous gift. They provided two gifts of $500 this semester; this donor also gave in the fall of 2021 and spring of 2022. We noticed that this fall, there was an entire shopping cart less than what we could purchase in the spring due to current inflation.
This really puts into perspective what many students are struggling with each time they shop for food, and a recent study at the University of Utah assessing food insecurity among our medical students reported 51% of the participants endorsed that they were food insecure, which is five times the USDA's national average (the USDA measures household food insecurity nationally).14
Our Basic Needs Collective defines basic needs as "the financial, food, and housing security among our students." We define students as undergraduate, graduate, postdoctoral trainees, interns, or visiting students—anyone that's a learner. That identity also intersects among our staff members and faculty, so we have this large community to serve here at the University of Utah. My operating assumption is that, right now, everybody's experiencing some kind of stress due to financial strain. Whether that's the constantly shifting markets or the high prices at the grocery store, it's a particular challenge right now.
What are the BNC resources and programs that health sciences students can use? How can they access them?
Sarah Elizabeth Garza-Levitt: We're open and accessible to any student. The BNC offers in-person and virtual resource referral and assessment support. Our virtual office hours are available two days a week in the evening and can be accessed via our website.
We have over 18 resource areas that a student can endorse, and they can also come to us with anything that they would like to discuss that isn't on that list. We have campus and community resources that we can provide, and we are launching our case management model in the spring with graduate and undergraduate social work students.
A lot of the resources we provide to students are often paid by student fees, but they don't know they have access to them.
One I often highlight is the Office of Software Licensing. A lot of students don't know that they can go and download the professional version of Zoom there, which saves around $15 a month. That could put some gas in the car or some groceries in a cart.
We're generalists in the BNC, so it isn't only students struggling with basic needs insecurity; it's any student on campus who would like to learn more about the resources available to them on campus and in the community.
Marina Knysheva: Sometimes there is a disconnect because we're so far away from main campus, so people still don't know enough about the BNC, but with the Medical Towers closing and students having to find new places to live by August 2023, if it gets on their radar now, then they'll be able to utilize those resources to find housing if they are struggling to find it by August.
How is basic needs security, particularly food security, connected to health equity?
Marina Knysheva: I come from a culture where we base all of our family events and everything around food, and it's a time for us to come together, recharge, connect, and see how everyone's doing. Coming from this culture that emphasizes it makes me more passionate about providing food through the FeedU pantry.
Nutrition is sometimes overlooked when it comes to healthcare needs. There's also usually judgment passed when we have patients who are only eating ramen or chips or something like that, and it's like, "Well, why are you eating such bad foods?" In reality, that may be all they can afford, and eating something is better than eating nothing. In healthcare, we need to be clearer and more realistic when talking to patients about nutrition and changing their eating habits. Instead of just saying, "Hey, stop eating all these things that you're eating," being more culturally aware and recognizing that these foods that we see as unhealthy may be foods that are part of someone's culture and way of life. How can we take those foods that they love and maybe make them just a little bit healthier? Like with breading or grains, make it whole grain instead of regular white grain. Also, taking into consideration the cost of food, because as we've just talked about, the cost of food is going up and sometimes we're telling patients to eat more vegetables, but how affordable are those vegetables?
As healthcare providers, we really need to focus on:
- How can we use a patient's current nutrition and make it just a little bit better?
- How can the patient realistically implement these changes?
- How can we help patients make those changes?
For example, one medical school (I can't remember which one) gives patients a prescription for a local food bank to get more vegetables and fruits, and that's a really awesome idea. If we give patients the tools to make those changes, we can slow down the progression of so many chronic diseases and overall improve the quality of life for patients.
Sarah Elizabeth Garza-Levitt: From my perspective, food is an equalizer, and everybody eats. Yet, access to food is not equal. It hasn't been, and it isn't. If we talk about food insecurity, what we're measuring is an individual's perception of their access to and ability to have food. So, in the context of health equity, inclusion, and access, Marina’s points about health outcomes are really important.
The research on college student basic needs suggests students who struggle with basic needs insecurities have worse academic outcomes.1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,12,13 It's not always the case, some students are doing well in the face of their basic needs insecurities, but there is clear evidence that suggests students who struggle with it are at higher risk for poor academic performance.
I think about the fact that our students are often in the position of holding multiple roles while they're striving to earn their degree in order to increase their earned income potential and advance their health professional status; and that these are the students that are simultaneously experiencing basic needs insecurities.
There's a push to increase diversity among our health professional cohorts because, as we know and the data is clear, there are underrepresented identities within the health professions.10,11 Defined in the broader context of equity, diversity, and inclusion, marginalized and minoritized students disproportionately suffer from basic needs insecurity, and lack of access often falls along racial lines.5 The efforts to advance equity among college students are beginning to take shape through an actively trauma-informed and anti-racist framework in basic needs programming that provides support measures to improve student safety, security, and academic success through an equity, diversity, and inclusion lens.
Because individuals from marginalized identities disproportionately experience basic needs insecurity, my concern is around retention and degree completion of those individuals from diverse backgrounds. I, myself, am one of them—I'm first gen, I have a queer identity, I have an immigrant identity, and I'm striving to earn my Ph.D. as a second-year doctoral student in social work, but I definitely didn't come into the academy equipped with a lot of the coding and the social support in order to really succeed in higher ed; therefore it's taken me decades to earn my degrees. It took me 23 years to earn my first college degree at Salt Lake Community College. I dropped out, I failed out, and I left due to other issues, often because of basic needs insecurities, and I didn't know what I didn't know.
So, when we're thinking about diversifying our cohorts, and we're thinking about the individuals that we're actively recruiting and are coming into the academy, health equity, diversity, and inclusion is going to be something that we need to consider in their student experience. And that they may not be coming in with the same levels of economic or social support as past cohorts. So how are we going to retain them? How are we going to complete them? How are we going to support them? These are the things we think deeply about in our Basic Needs Collective. My view is that as soon as we issue a letter of acceptance to the University of Utah, that begins our agreement to support a student through their academic journey. Because we accept and admit students, we have an obligation to understand and work with a student to support their basic needs through their college education.
What's the vision for growth?
Sarah Elizabeth Garza-Levitt: One of the things that I'm really committed to in the next year is increasing utilization of the Supplemental Nutrition Access Program (SNAP), formerly Food Stamps. A lot of students don't know that they may actually qualify for SNAP and don't apply so we have really low utilization.
We're doing a lot of great work, and we have great institutional support. Yet, long-term, sustainable investment and seeing this as a necessary strategic initiative and plan is going to be foundational. We're in a really great position where, with greater institutional investment, we can expand this work, become leaders in this area, and elevate the conversation.
Any information for those who want to collaborate with or support the Basic Needs Collective and FeedU Pantry?
Sarah Elizabeth Garza-Levitt: The BNC is recruiting and training its first cohort of volunteers called Basic Needs Ambassadors. There's a website that has more information about how to become involved in advocacy and elevating basic needs and security among college students on our campus.
Being an ambassador and donating, these are some of the ways that people can get involved.
Marina, as a medical student doing this work, what would you say to other students who might think they don't have the time?
Marina Knysheva: I would have to say, the more people that are involved, the easier it is to distribute the work, and therefore it wouldn't feel like, "Oh my gosh, this is taking up so much of my time." Even though I am one of the only people from the School of Medicine helping out, I don't feel like it's taking up a lot of my time. In fact, I feel like it's an amazing use of my time, and I am very grateful to be in this position because I really value community. I think you can foster community through food, and having this pantry available is a way for me to do that.
Any final words you'd like to share with folks?
Sarah Elizabeth Garza-Levitt: I'm a social worker, so I always like to end with hope. College student basic needs insecurities are solvable problems. We know how to feed people, we know how to shelter people, we know how to care for people. And being part of the collective effort is really important on campus, and joining that effort and supporting our collective in any way that individuals can is most welcome.
- Baker-Smith, C., Coca, V., Goldrick-Rab, S., Looker, E., Richardson, B., & Williams, T. (2020). #RealCollege 2020: Five years of evidence on campus basic needs insecurity. The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice. https://tacc.org/sites/default/files/documents/2020-02/2019_realcollege_survey_report.pdf
- Broton, K. M. (2020). A review of estimates of housing insecurity and homelessness among students in U.S. higher education. Journal of Social Distress and Homelessness, 29(1), 25-38. https://doi.org/10.1080/10530789.2020.1677009
- Bruening, M., van Woerden, I., Todd, M., & Laska, M. N. (2018). Hungry to learn: The prevalence and effects of food insecurity on health behaviors and outcomes over time among a diverse sample of university freshmen. The International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 15(1), 9-9. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12966-018-0647-7
- Farahbakhsh, J., Hanbazaza, M., Ball, G. D. C., Farmer, A. P., Maximova, K., & Willows, N. D. (2017). Food insecure student clients of a university-based food bank have compromised health, dietary intake and academic quality. Nutrition & Dietetics, 74(1), 67-73. https://doi.org/10.1111/1747-0080.12307
- Goldrick-Rab, S. (2021). Students are humans first: Advancing basic needs security in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of Postsecondary Student Success, 1(1), 3-17. https://doi.org/10.33009/fsop_jpss129262
- Maroto, M. M. (2013). food insecurity among community college students: Prevalence and relationship to GPA. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 45(4), S35-S35. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jneb.2013.04.095
- Martinez, S. M., Esaryk, E. E., Moffat, L., & Ritchie, L. (2021). Redefining basic needs for higher education: it’s more than minimal food and housing according to California university students. American Journal of Health Promotion, 35(6), 818-834. https://doi.org/10.1177/0890117121992295
- Martinez, S. M., Frongillo, E. A., Leung, C., & Ritchie, L. (2020). No food for thought: Food insecurity is related to poor mental health and lower academic performance among students in California’s public university system. Journal of Health Psychology, 25(12), 1930-1939. https://doi.org/10.1177/1359105318783028
- Payne-Sturges, D. C., Tjaden, A., Caldeira, K. M., Vincent, K. B., & Arria, A. M. (2018). Student hunger on campus: Food insecurity among college students and implications for academic institutions. American Journal of Health Promotion, 32(2), 349-354. https://doi.org/10.1177/0890117117719620
- Rodriguez, J. E., Campbell, K. M., & Adelson, W. J. (2015). Poor representation of Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans in medicine. Family medicine, 47(4), 259-263.
- Salsberg, E., Richwine, C., Westergaard, S., Portela Martinez, M., Oyeyemi, T., Vichare, A., & Chen, C. P. (2021). Estimation and comparison of current and future racial/ethnic representation in the US health care workforce. JAMA network open, 4(3), e213789. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.3789
- Silva, M. R., Kleinert, W. L., Sheppard, A. V., Cantrell, K. A., Freeman-Coppadge, D. J., Tsoy, E., Roberts, T., Pearrow, M. (2017). the relationship between food security, housing stability, and school performance among college students in an urban university. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice, 19(3), 284-299. https://doi.org/10.1177/1521025115621918
- Soldavini, J., Berner, M., & Da Silva, J. (2019). Rates of and characteristics associated with food insecurity differ among undergraduate and graduate students at a large public university in the Southeast United States. Preventive Medicine Reports, 14(1), 100836. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pmedr.2019.100836
- Thorman, A., & Dhillon, H. (2021). No food for thought: Documenting the prevalence of food insecurity among medical students at one western university. Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition, 16(5), 643-649. https://doi.org/10.1080/19320248.2021.1873885
If you would like to connect more with the Basic Needs Collective, please get in touch with Sarah Elizabeth Garza-Levitt at email@example.com.