MSA explores strategies to lessen impact of Columbia’s “food desert”

“We’re really trying to branch out with the other organizations that are working hard and have been doing that for years, long before we even came to Columbia,” MSA senator Dylan Cain said.

The Missouri Students Association is beginning to explore strategies to lessen the impact of the U.S. Department of Agriculture-designated food desert in Columbia.

In 2015, the USDA marked regions of downtown Columbia as well as a large portion south of Stadium Boulevard a “food desert,” which is an area lacking accessibility to affordable and nutritious food.

The lack of affordable and nutritious food has led to an increase in food insecurity on campus, a problem MSA wants to address.

“The bad thing about food insecurity is that a lot of students don’t think of themselves as food insecure,” Davis said. “If there are days where you have to go without a meal you are food insecure, and a lot of students don’t know that. They get into the cycle of thinking that a college student is just supposed to be poor.”

According to Davis, the lack of education also makes gauging food insecurity difficult because many students are unaware of their status. Gauging the frequency of college hunger is where MSA senator Dylan Cain, leader of MSA’s food insecurity task force, is beginning to tackle the problem.

“Our thoughts right now are forming a report,” Cain said. “City council and state governments, they’re going to see us as more legitimate, and see our concerns as more legitimate, including [Campus Dining Services], if we have numbers and data.”

Cain also wants to educate students on the programs available to them, as many students could qualify for federal services. One program MSA has explored in the past year is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which offers help to millions of eligible, low-income individuals and families and provides economic benefits to communities.

The program also offers Electronic Benefits Transfer machines, which are able to process SNAP and debit transactions at farmers markets and other produce vendors.

“One of the basic prerequisites to sign up for SNAP and EBT benefits is working 20 hours a week as a student,” Cain said. “There’s a lot of people who do that. Furthermore, non-traditional students might qualify; pregnant women or anyone with a dependant might qualify for [the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children], so I mean that’s something that we should be pushing as much as possible.”

Cain has brought up the idea of EBT machines before, but Campus Dining Services was concerned about how well the machines would work for consumers on campus, as they are meant for larger vendors like national grocery store chains.

“Personally, I think that if we’re going to talk about a troubled area as far as food access goes, when your other alternative is something like a Lucky’s, you gotta work with what you got,” Cain said. “It’s the consumer’s right to choose and it’s our university’s obligation, I think, to be open and accessible, especially when it comes to issues like hunger.”

Although the area designated as a food desert contains Lucky’s Market, a grocery store on Providence Road, according to MSA Senator Tim Davis, the store does not provide cost-effective options.

“If you look at it, one, [Lucky’s] is not very accessible if you live on campus,” Davis said. “Two, it’s not very affordable.”

The closing of the Wal-Mart Express last year was another contributing factor to Columbia’s food desert status, as the store was located right off campus. However, according to Davis, Wal-Mart Express did not provide much in terms of nutritious produce.

“I had never been in there but from what I have been told, and from my experience with friends is that it wasn’t very big to begin with,” Davis said. “It didn’t offer a lot of produce.”

A long-term strategy MSA has looked into is implementing a more produce-focused market in an easily accessible area to add what the Wal-Mart Express lacked. The problem MSA faces is the means to do so.

“The Environmental Leadership Office, they are the organization that brings farmers markets to campus,” Cain said. “It would be great if we could talk to them and really try to explore adding additional ones, but at the same time that’s kind of more their territory than MSA’s.”

Another problem the strategy faces is where to implement such a market, as downtown Columbia offers little space for additional businesses.

“If you look at Columbia, we’re basically gridlocked,” Davis said. “It’s a complicated issue and the closing of the Wal-Mart Express obviously didn’t help.”

MSA is also working hands-on, informing others about the situation in Columbia and its potential solutions by reaching out at events like Columbia’s annual Harvest Hootenanny.

“We’re really trying to branch out with the other organizations that are working hard and have been doing that for years, long before we even came to Columbia,” Cain said.

With little options for accessible and affordable produce, MSA is working hard to get healthier and inexpensive options in the hands of students.

“That’s our goal right now,” Cain said. “Forming a report, trying to make sure that people know about what’s out there and then we’re also kind of working hands on.”

Edited by Sarah Hallam | shallam@themaneater.com

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