Addressing hidden student hunger at Auburn

Food U Header

Changing the world is serious business. It’s a painstaking process of doing the small things right until they turn into the big things. When it comes to an issue like hunger on college campuses, Auburn has a practical approach, rooted in its land-grant mission.

“If I had to sum up the issue at Auburn I would say, ‘hidden,’” said Alicia Powers ’02, managing director for Auburn’s Hunger Solutions Institute in the College of Human Sciences. “When most people think about hunger, we think about the international or global hunger crisis. That’s not what it looks like in the U.S.”

But with the knowledge that one in three Auburn students face food insecurity at some point, there’s no denying that it does exist on campus.

“I think this issue is unexpected on Auburn’s campus,” she said. “But it’s the student sitting in class, distracted by worries of paying a bill or struggling to finish a test because they’re so hungry and can’t focus. It’s the student who runs by Starbucks before class to get sugar packets to make it until dinner to eat. These are just some of the faces of hunger at Auburn.”

Food insecurity refers to a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life, and research indicates that students at greatest risk are first-generation, nontraditional and minority students—the very students Auburn’s land-grant mission drives it to recruit. But this issue affects a variety of students, according to Glenn Loughridge ’94, director of Campus Dining.

“There are students who don’t qualify for financial aid, who are supporting themselves, or are here on a shoestring budget with no room for any unexpected expenses, as well as international graduate students, supporting a family on a small stipend,” he said. “All of these circumstances, and many others, leave students vulnerable.”

“There’s a stigma associated with food insecurity,” Powers said. “And that stigma extends to accessing resources. We’re working to break that cycle so students feel comfortable getting the help they need.”

Experiencing Auburn

Students struggling with food insecurity often miss out on the camaraderie and fellowship of late-night study sessions at the local diner, meet-ups for lunch after a tough exam or celebratory dinners after a big win. In short, students battling hunger have a different Auburn experience on every front than those who have the food and nutrition they need.

Reaching the most at-risk students is no easy feat, it’s one that Powers and Loughridge know they can’t do alone.

“This is a much larger issue than even what we see on Auburn’s campus,” Powers said. “But we must start with what we can do. That is why we need help—so we can think big and be innovative and then figure out what small, incremental steps we can take to make it happen.”

Auburn donors support campus resources like the Campus Food Pantry, Feed the Family Fund meal plan assistance, and the Campus
Kitchen, a student-led food recovery organization, which provide help for students in need or in crisis. These resources have seen a dramatic increase in usage, and philanthropic support has helped bridge the gap with funding for food and equipment. One of the additional needs has been space.

Loughridge was instrumental in securing funding for a new, centrally located space for the Campus Food Pantry and the Campus Kitchen, providing easier access, better equipped facilities and a more welcoming experience for students.

Proving that if you build it, they will come, the food pantry had nearly 50% as many visits in one month in its new location as it did in the entire previous year.

“Our goal is for the Campus Food Pantry and the Campus Kitchen to mirror other services on campus like our dining facilities,” Loughridge said. “These new spaces are a giant step in that direction with their location, design and atmosphere.”

Building Food U

For Loughridge, combatting this issue is part of an even bigger plan to connect Auburn’s food system. Growing the network of partners across campus is key to a long-term solution.

He and Powers work with other leaders to develop a holistic approach that addresses food insecurity and creates sustainable and appealing food options for students—all while providing research and experiential learning opportunities for students and faculty.

“I see Auburn as ‘Food U,’” he said. “Students can come to Auburn to learn to grow and develop food, learn about food insecurity and how to combat it, gain knowledge about the benefits of locally sourced produce and get hands-on experience working in these programs, gardens and facilities so they’ll leave Auburn one day and go out and change the world.”

Auburn’s comprehensive approach to food focuses not just on food insecurity, but also on sustainable solutions throughout campus and beyond.

“First, there was aquaponics, which included fresh fish and greenhouse-grown veggies to supply campus dining,” said Desmond Layne, head of Auburn’s Department of Horticulture. “Next came our vertical farms with hyperlocal fresh greens and soon, we will include produce grown from the Transformation Garden and organic produce from our local organic research center. As our students help to grow these foods as part of their research, others can have the benefit of the healthy nutrition available throughout campus.”

The Road Ahead

At the heart of the hunger issue is a need to address basic needs of life that many college students struggle to provide. Prior to the pandemic, U.S. colleges and universities saw dramatic enrollment increases fueled almost exclusively by an influx of students from low-income families, more than 30% of whom were also first-generation students.

Through collaborations with campus partners like Loughridge and Layne, Powers seeks to address the root issues of food insecurity on campus and, ultimately, a more permanent solution at Auburn and beyond.

“Glenn (Loughridge) and I are working on a pilot project on campus that I think is very promising,” Powers said. “And I hope the Auburn Family will be part of it. We need their support. At Auburn, we’re a practical group of people who want to take what we’ve learned and serve our state, nation and world. And, as an Auburn alumna, I think that’s really what the whole land-grant mission is about.”

Today’s challenges, although great, are nothing new. The Auburn Family has always been about the business of changing the world, one step at a time.

Learn how you can support Auburn’s fight against hunger at