Jennet Nedirmammedova a senior at the University of Wyoming invited me into her apartment, a couple of blocks from campus. It, is cozy – a couple of rooms with paintings on every wall. She cooks was cooking pasta, and offers me some as we sit down at a wooden table edging her kitchen and the stairway. Nedirmammedova came to Wyoming from Turkmenistan to study environmental science, and she has since added a second major in religious studies, plus two minors. She also works two jobs.
“Because we're international students we're only allowed to work 20 twenty hours a week on campus – not even off campus,” she said.
Her paycheck has to cover rent, food, and tuition, which is highest for international students, and her status gives her fewer options for financial aid.
“I don't know how I'm going to pay for my next semester. I'm tired. It's like another huge stress,” Nedirmammedova said.
She is barely making ends meet. She sometimes gets free food from local non-profits, and usually cooks from whole ingredients because she is passionate about sustainability and using less packaging. She said that actually saves her money, but still, she is just surviving. Living so far from her family has forced her to be more open about her problems.
“I was very hesitant to approach people and ask for help. Nowadays I’m like ‘blegh,’ saying everything.”
Nedirmammedova is not the only student who is stressed about necessities like food. Last year, Cole Ehmke of UW’s Agricultural and Applied Economics department helped arrange a survey of financial wellness among undergraduates. One section focused on students’ access to food.
“If we total low food security and very low food security, both of those were at 18.7%... so, 36, 37%,” Ehmke said. “A little more than a third.”
More than a third of students at UW are food insecure, and that’s just undergraduates. Food insecurity is a term the United States Department of Agriculture uses to describe the broader picture surrounding hunger, including all the stress and health impacts of not knowing whether you’ll have enough food. So some students are stressed about getting food, and others are actually missing meals. These numbers match schools all over the country, even those with higher tuition and living costs. Ehmke said this data is concerning.
“It really does affect their success at university,” he said. “Both the money management and food security. Because who in the world can pay attention when they’re hungry?”
Students can take some comfort in the thought that once they graduate they’ll have better chances of making good wages in the future, but that isn’t a given.
Mike Vercauteran is the director of Interfaith Good Samaritan, the organization that runs the local food pantry. He said he’s seen a few students come through – not many – but he does see university staff, and can think of several people who were students, left before graduating, and are still struggling.
“This is a critical time for people in their life,” he said. “There’s a whole population of students that are on the verge of dropping out. I can think of countless people that just – they can’t afford to stay in school.”
There are other organizations in town working to make food more accessible. Feeding Laramie Valley grows and distributes produce and offers garden space. Laramie Soup Kitchen provides community meals on weekdays and has a deal with the University that allows them to take some of the leftover food from events and dining. But according to staff at each of these organizations, it doesn’t sound like many students are taking advantage of their programs this.
UW Vice President of Academic Affairs Anne Alexander said these resources are wonderful, but there’s a stigma in using them.
“Study after study after study recently has shown that college students, and particularly students who come from rural backgrounds, do not take advantage of community resources as much as you would think that they would, frankly out of a sense of shame, almost,” she said.
She and Ehmke pointed to money management as a way to address food insecurity. That’s part of the intent of a course that administrators are piloting next year. Alexander said it will be required for incoming freshmen, and focused on – “...time management, stress management, financial wellness, but also getting folks acquainted with resources on campus like study abroad and things like that.”
In Nedirmammedova's case, such a course may not be much help. Even if she were just starting at UW, she transferred from community college, so she may not have to take it. And she said she is already careful about managing her time and money.
“Thankfully because of my major I think I kept my certain behavior, in terms of like sustainability, lifestyle, sleeping schedules, dietary, everything, just like I did in my home country. Which is nice, I think,” she said.
People at UW have tried to put a food pantry on campus before, and in response to this new study staff and administrators are talking about picking up those efforts. It will likely be a part of the Strategic Plan for Student Affairs. But it could take more than a year to actually implement something, and Nedirmammedova, along with many others in her same position, will have graduated by then.