The faces of hunger: part one

By Julian Curet, [email protected]

For many students attending The University of Akron, Thanksgiving break is a chance to spend time with family and enjoy an abundance of food. Unfortunately, some students see it as just another day spent wondering where their next meal will come from. It’s not a matter of choosing between menus. It’s a matter of whether or not they will be able to buy something to eat at all.

That is the definition of “food insecurity.”

Last week, during Hunger and Homeless Awareness Week, we learned that almost two million people in Ohio are food insecure. In the Akron-Canton area, one out seven people experience food insecurity. These figures bring to mind soup kitchen lines at First United Methodist Church or panhandlers on the corner of Fountain and Carroll streets by Route 8.

However, work is being done to expand the current image of the face of hunger.

Valerie Ziemba, currently working on her second master’s degree in supply chain management, is raising awareness about the fact that many students at UA are also experiencing food insecurity. She states that there is cause for concern, citing a 2015 pilot study by former UA anthropology student Tannya Forcone. The study, which looked at a representative sample of nearly 500 UA students, found that 36.9 percent of students said they were food insecure.

That percentage equals over 9,000 fellow students who cannot fully focus on their studies because they are hungry or worried about being hungry. Many of these students even consider dropping out of school when faced with regular hunger issues. And, if a student is also supporting a family then the problem is magnified. Many students are not aware of this issue.

Yet, the problem is all too real for Ziemba herself as she is no stranger to being food insecure.

As a full-time freshman UA, she did not qualify for financial aid. Working three jobs was not enough to cover tuition and living expenses. Her struggles snowballed into an experience that is the impetus behind her current mission. Near the end of the fall semester, she had to sell the remainder of her food coupon book (today’s equivalent would be “swipes”) in order to pay for a university bill. Ziemba went without food for three and half days. By chance, she happened upon three dollars which she had forgotten in a case for her sunglasses. Immediately, she ran, with saving grace in hand, to buy a bagel at the cafeteria.

The symbolism of the bagel returned to Ziemba a few years ago as she witnessed an Einstein Bros. Bagels employee disposing of several dozen edible bagels. After questioning, the employee revealed that they cannot sell day-old bagels. Plans to redistribute the bagels fell through but Ziemba has stayed the course.

This event combined with her personal history set her on a path to research the food insecurity problem at UA. “Being hungry like that is a very lonely, frightening, and isolating place,” says Ziemba. “I vowed that someday I would do something for other students because struggling like I did was exhausting, physically and emotionally.”

Using the limited research of food insecurity on campuses nationwide and Forcone’s specific research of UA’s hunger issues, Valerie Ziemba is hoping to gain support from the administration at UA.

Earlier this year, several students at Kent State University at Stark brought the issue of hunger on their campus to administrators. Within a month, a food pantry emerged, named Flash’s Food Pantry and initially stocked by Fisher Foods Store Director Alex Fisher. Ziemba says that “university support makes a difference.” Garnering support from UA students, faculty, and administration will help raise awareness about food insecurity on campus and combat the issue through a campaign titled “Food Forward.”

Food Forward is the result of a conversation in one of Ziemba’s classes focused on “marketing and reframing ideas to present a positive perspective.” It attempts to not only raise awareness about food insecurity on campus but also remove the stigma connected with the subject. In her talks with students, she has found that “there is a recurring theme of shame for these students who suffer from food insecurity.”

Currently, the group behind Food Forward is collecting money in the Bierce Library. These funds will go towards students experiencing hardship so they can concentrate on their school work.

The second part of “What is the Face of Hunger?” will explore this effort and an umbrella project called the “Full Circle Care Initiative,” for which the bagel metaphor serves as the basis of the logo. Some personal narratives will also be featured that will further expand the image of the face of hunger.