Evelyn Whitehead volunteers with The Willow Project | Webster University

Student Voices: Evelyn Whitehead

Evelyn's field experience at The Willow Project

EvelynWhen it came time to choose an organization for my Human Rights Field Experience in the summer of 2016, there was no doubt in my mind that The Willow Project was the one for me! After hearing Professor Anne Geraghty­-Rathert guest lecture on gender equality and empowering women in my Millennium Development Goals Class for the 2015 Annual Human Rights Conference, I knew I would later seek her out for an opportunity to work with her and The Willow Project. As an International Human Rights Major who is also earning a Paralegal Certification, I have ambitions of attending law school and working in the field of human rights law. It seemed that The Willow Project would provide me with the perfect opportunity to get my feet wet and start seeing what my life would be like later down the road.

Before meeting with Professor Geraghty-­Rathert to discuss what type of work I would be doing under her supervision, I assumed that I would be working on one of the cases The Willow Project currently engages in. The organization works to provides legal assistance to “society's forgotten women,” and I would have been happy working on any case that they would have let me get involved with. However, I soon discovered that Professor Geraghty-Rathert had other plans for me – plans that would teach me about a social problem that had been right in front of me all along. It turned out that she had heard through the grapevine that not only was I the current president of the Amnesty International chapter at Webster University, but I was also pretty efficient when it came to event planning. This led her to task me with something that was in uncharted territory for The Willow Project: addressing food scarcity on college campuses, beginning with researching how to start a food pantry at Webster University.

I can honestly say that when I first dove into researching food pantries, I had no idea who used them (at the time, if I were forced to make a guess I would’ve said mostly homeless people), what their primary purpose was (again, my suspicions were aimed at feeding the homeless), when they became useful, where any of them were, or why we even needed them. It was only through my research that I discovered how privileged I truly am to be food secure and to not have to get food from a pantry or similar source. Through my research, I learned about the state of food insecurity, which is defined as the state of being without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. I then realized that food insecurity is a very serious issue among people throughout the United States – including college students. Just think, when you hear the phrase “college student diet” what do you think of? Top ramen, beer, pizza, repeat? In addition to this, have you ever heard the phrase “I’m a poor college student! I can’t afford…?” If you have, please note that these common expressions and perspectives reinforce the idea that everyone in college is poor, or has lots of expenses to deal with. It also reinforces the idea that most people in college make poor choices when spending their money. The existence of the “poor college student” stereotype conceals the reality of food insecurity among lower-income college students. As a result, food security on college campus is an under-recognized issue.

That isn’t to say that food insecurity in general isn’t acknowledged in general. Interestingly enough, food insecurity of primary and secondary school students is a recognized problem in the U.S. More than 30.5 million children received free and reduced meals in 2008 through the National School Lunch Program. However, there is very little existing literature on food insecurity among college students even though scholars know quite a bit about low-income students and the so-called “college diet”. Even less is known about what to do about this problem. This lack of information and action is extremely frustrating to me, as a student of human rights, because all people are guaranteed the right to food. Based on universal rights standards, one would assume that all people have the right to nutritious food regardless of their socioeconomic status. However, I found that this is hardly the case in the United States or on its college campuses.

It’s important to think about solutions when you’re faced with an important problem like food insecurity. I was astounded by the amount of hoops a person has to jump through to even think about proposing the construction of a food pantry. The amount of filing and form-filling that is involved can be a deterrent for action, at the very beginning. In the end this is worth the trouble, but the whole process got me thinking about what else we can do – in addition to creating food pantries – to combat food insecurity? In my opinion, a good first step is raising the minimum wage so that everyone can afford nutritious foods – and so the poor isn’t stuck eating low-cost junk food. There could also be increased resources, like enhanced food stamp or WIC programs, to help more people access food. At the local level, people with special skills (like accounting skills or nutrition training) could help create and run food pantries that used community resources to help others. In many ways, nutrition programs could be seen as a broader community initiative; many people, whether they can afford their grocery bills or not, could benefit from learning more about nutrition and healthy eating. As voters, we can also keep an eye on laws related to food insecurity and pressure our policymakers to protect food rights.


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