Upcoming report reveals connection between regional food and student food access on college campuses

Hannah Leighton, Director of Research and Evaluation

Farm to College & Student Access: An Exploratory, Justice-Based Investigation Among New England Institutions of Higher Education
Report by Jessika Brenin

This report arose out of a new research collaboration between Farm to Institution New England (FINE) and Tufts University, and reveals some of the key ways that regional food procurement and food access intersect on college campuses in New England. The research team found that in particular campus agriculture projects, like campus farms and gardens, play a key role in connecting students to accessible, regionally grown food. Research included a systematic literature review and interviews with 14 stakeholders including food service directors, academics, nutritionists, representatives from food insecurity and food systems organizations and working groups, and more.

The report itself is pending publication in a peer-reviewed journal and will be shared in its entirety once published. In the meantime, we are pleased to share the following highlights.

Download the Report (PDF)

Farm to college and the connection to food access

FINE’s previous research shows that prior to COVID-19, New England colleges served approximately 83.2 million meals annually and spent $398 million on food in 2017-18. FINE estimates that New England colleges spent between $100-$115 million on local food during that year. College campuses have an opportunity and responsibility to make big impacts by investing their large budgets in local, regenerative, and fair food. They also have an opportunity to provide nutritious, culturally appropriate food to millions of people daily (FINE estimates that pre-COVID, nearly a quarter of the population spent time in the region’s schools, hospitals, and colleges everyday.)

Ensuring that campus food, especially local and regional food, is accessible, affordable, and culturally relevant is a critical part of building a more equitable and just food system (both on campus and off). However, little formal research has been done on the relationship between food access and regional food procurement on college campuses. This new report begins that process.

While this research is exploratory and the interview findings should not be considered representative of all regional food procurement programs in New England colleges, the research team did find a connection between regional food procurement on campus and student food access. To differing degrees, this relationship was apparent through the mechanisms of nutrition of campus food, student patronage of campus food establishments, meal plan participation, food affordability, differential access, cultural relevance, and student activities. In particular, Farm to College campus agriculture projects emerged as a primary method for increasing the equitable access, perceived access, and cultural relevance of food on college campuses.

The importance of this research right now

This research was conducted at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when colleges were rapidly changing their procurement and food access policies to address disruptions and emerging needs.

The last six months have highlighted just how vulnerable our food system is. Unprecedented unemployment rates coupled with disrupted food supply chains put millions of people at risk for food insecurity. Feeding America predicted early in the pandemic that as many as 17 million additional people could experience food insecurity as a result of the pandemic. Research done by the Urban Institute shows that in May 2020, more than one in six nonelderly adults (17.7 percent) and more than one in five parents living with children under 19 (21.8 percent) reported that their households experienced food insecurity during the prior 30 days. These studies by Feeding America and the Urban Institute also highlight the racial and ethnic disparities that exist in food insecurity rates during the pandemic as well as the increased likelihood of food insecurity for those experiencing job or income loss.

The pandemic has also highlighted the important role that many colleges play in feeding their communities. As New England colleges transitioned to online learning, many of them utilized their facilities and infrastructure to supply food for hospitals and emergency food efforts. Others continued to buy food from regional producers and offered it at a reduced price to students and faculty. As campuses reopen and dining operations adapt to evolving circumstances, it is more important than ever that they leverage their purchasing power and infrastructure to support regional farms and food businesses while addressing food access needs.

This research highlights a few ways that campuses can start to connect these dots and it also calls out several ways that FINE and others can continue to support this research, including:

Recommendations for colleges seeking to improve student access to regional food:

  • Work to increase the representation of students of different race, culture, and wealth among campus agriculture project leaders
  • Use campus agriculture projects to partner with community stakeholders representing different cultures and product culturally relevant crops for campus food service
  • Work to increase the amount of campus-produced food going to students and affordable costs through campus food service or CSA programs&

Recommendations for FINE:

  • Pursue further research focusing on student food access and regional food procurement from a student perspective. If possible, conduct interviews and focus groups with students who may not traditionally be prioritized by the FTC movement, including commuter students, international students, 3rd and 4th year students, students without meal plans, food insecure students, students participating in food insecurity coalitions on campus, and students who are not already engaging with campus regional food initiatives
  • ​Include additional questions relevant to student food access on the Campus Dining Survey
  • Release raw data from the Campus Dining Surveys with responses tagged to unique ID numbers so progress can be tracked over time on a disaggregated basis that continues to protect the confidentiality of survey respondents

Download the Report (PDF)

About the Authors

This report's lead author Jessika Brenin is pursuing a joint master’s degree in Tufts’ Urban & Environmental Policy & Planning program and the Food & Nutrition Policy & Programs. Professor Julian Agyeman served as advisor. FINE’s Research and Evaluation Manager, Hannah Leighton, provided additional support. If you have any questions about this research or would like to support future research efforts on this subject, please reach out to Jessika Brennin at jessika.brennin@tufts.edu or Hannah Leighton at hannah@farmtoinstitution.org.

Video Recording: Jessika and FINE’s Tania Taranovski shared information about farm to college and the connections to student food access and food justice on campus at a Hoch Cunningham Environmental Lecture on October 1, 2020.