What do college students eat? Stereotypical college foods like Easy Mac, Hot Pockets, and frozen pizza immediately come to mind. But the question is more pressing than you might imagine.
“There’s a lot of food insecurity among our students,” explains Kiana Keys, Business and Operations Manager for the City Colleges of Chicago.
“It’s a high percentage, into the double digits. We have around 80,000 students, and this is something that we always have in mind when we develop and shape our food programs.”
College food insecurity is a growing issue, particularly in the community college system. Students who already struggle financially often find themselves having to prioritize textbooks and tuition over food, particularly at the start of the semester before financial aid checks are issued. As the food manager for City Colleges’ seven primary campuses and six satellite sites, it’s also a problem that Keys is intimately familiar with.
“A lot of our students receive public aid, including SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits,” she says. “Unfortunately, SNAP benefits can only be applied to certain types of food, like fresh produce and other groceries. It doesn’t apply to hot or prepared food. Even though we have cafeterias and other dining services on our campuses, a lot of our financially struggling students can’t access them.”
It’s no secret that hungry students show decreased academic performance, making an already tough situation much worse. To address this, Keys and her team began to look for ways around the limitations of the SNAP system and to better provide food for college students on their campuses. Their solution was a pilot program that gave students prepaid gift cards to buy on-site meals before their student aid refund checks were issued.
Coming from a family of educators, Keys is passionate about leveling the playing field for students. She’s a true believer in the power of higher education, having seen the effects firsthand in her own family. Her father, now a professor at Northwestern University, began his academic career as a remedial student at City Colleges’ Olive-Harvey campus. With the right support systems in place, even the most disadvantaged students can thrive.
Although college food insecurity is a serious problem, it doesn’t get much attention outside of administrative circles. Through innovations and partnerships, Keys is hoping to change the conversation.
“At a four-year college, meal plans are mandatory,” Keys says. “If you’re living on campus, you have to eat, and it makes sense to have a formal meal plan. Our students are commuters, and we don’t have a mandatory meal policy. Being in an urban population where many of our students just cannot afford food, however, we have to figure out how to feed them so that they can have higher academic achievements.”
At the same time, she says, college food programs need to be sustainable. College cafeterias still need to generate significant revenue to support their other food programs. For an organization like City Colleges, this means working with corporate partners. In 2018, for example, City Colleges began a partnership with Fooda to bring in local restaurants and food vendors.
“Working with Fooda has been great,” Keys says. “It’s refreshing and reassuring to know that we’re partnering with a company that is located here in Chicago. When we need all hands on deck, we can call Fooda to send people over. That kind of corporate support is the heart of our food program. We would not be able to carry out our food programs without that kind of help.”
Before partnering with Fooda, City Colleges relied on contracts with traditional college food service companies. Participation and excitement were low, owing to a combination of tired, predictable menus and a “blah” quality of food. It might not have been the worst college food, but it certainly didn’t stand out. It was clearly time for a change.
“Food is emotional for a lot of people,” Keys says. “Our students talk about food all the time, but they were going off campus to eat. When it was time to enter into another contract, a lot of us wanted to try something really innovative and different. That’s how we ended up with Fooda.”
By partnering with Fooda, Keys found an ally in her mission to reduce food insecurity among City Colleges’ student population. One of the biggest problems she faced with college food service companies was the price of prepared foods. Instead of trying to negotiate prices with a corporate-dictated menu that has been set in stone, Keys can work directly with Fooda’s team, often having face-to-face meetings.
“Working with Fooda has meant that we can find ways to keep prices where our students can afford them,” Keys says. “We’ve been able to shape the program so that there’s something for everyone. That’s important when you have students who are hungry, and may only have $2 or $3 in their pockets.”
That’s not to say that City Colleges’ new approach has been a perfect fit. These are still college students, after all, which means that even high-quality and affordable dining options don’t always win out over stereotypical college food. Keys says she likes to take advantage of her relative anonymity among the students, eavesdropping on them in the cafeteria to learn more about what’s working and what’s not.
“Sometimes the feedback we get is pretty funny,” she says. “We’ve had restaurants do pop-ups where they’ve served things like sophisticated gourmet tacos, and our students really didn’t like it. They wouldn’t complain to us directly, but if you eavesdropped in the cafeteria, you would hear them say things like ‘Why can’t we just have nachos and cheese?’ I find that the most genuine feedback comes when people don’t realize that anyone is listening. So I listen, and I try to be an advocate for them. Fooda has been very responsive to our feedback.”
By working with Fooda, Keys no longer has to worry about declining cafeteria participation, creeping operational costs, and increasing subsidy needs. Instead, she can focus her time and attention on solving bigger problems and chipping away at the constant issue of student food insecurity. Even better, the students find themselves with a variety of low-cost food options they would never have at a typical campus cafeteria (including those high up on the college food rankings).
For her part, Keys is happy to sum up City College’s relationship with Fooda. “We love it, the students love it, the lines are out the door.”