We must work to end the food insecurity of CMU students

Credit: Anna Boyle/Art Editor Credit: Anna Boyle/Art Editor
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Attending Carnegie Mellon University isn’t cheap. If you live on campus and pay for full tuition and room and board, then you can expect to spend over a quarter of a million dollars for your Bachelor’s degree. This assumes, however, that you graduate in four years. Universities are required to report six-year rates, meaning that there is a non-negligible number of undergraduate students who could owe over $400,000, possibly without any form of financial aid or support. A substantial, though often overlooked, consequence of this financial burden is food insecurity, such as limited access to sufficient and nutritious food.

Faced with a myriad of daily living expenses, at least 19 percent of Carnegie Mellon students, based on a 2018 study conducted by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh, face food insecurity on a regular basis. On any given day of the week, nearly one in five students at Carnegie Mellon don’t know whether they will have a full meal. Imagine feeling pressured to choose between eating or paying a university fee, purchasing course materials, or simply doing laundry. Notably, campus food insecurity disproportionately affects historically underrepresented and minority groups, including Black, Hispanic and Latino, LGBTQ+, and first-generation students, and is often coupled with unstable housing situations. Living off pizza and ramen, as a common college trope, puts a light-hearted spin on students’ struggles. However, it masks the social and economic factors that explain why food insecurity exists on our campus in the first place, how it manifests, and why it affects some students more than others. More importantly, it trivializes the problematic realities of malnourishment and undernourishment that not only undermine our students’ academic performance and community-centered endeavors but also make them feel excluded from their own campus.

As a university, we can take action to advocate on behalf of students facing financial precarity. Last November, our very own Graduate Student Assembly (GSA) garnered national attention about the financial burden that also impacts graduate students, some of whom earn incomes near the poverty line. On top of that, many students on government funding or particular visas are forbidden from working outside of their research to earn a livable income, which weighs on their ability to pay bills, make rent, and, for some, support a spouse or young children. Thankfully, the GSA amplified Carnegie Mellon students' voices both around the country and, especially, within the chambers of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate about tax reforms that threatened the livelihoods of countless graduate students. Now, as we have done time and time again, dedicated Carnegie Mellon students have come together as the Basic Needs Working Group to propose and champion a burgeoning, and hopefully sustainable, set of initiatives to combat these issues.

The Basic Needs Working Group is a GSA-sponsored coalition of graduate and undergraduate students working to fight for our namesake: the basic needs of students at Carnegie Mellon. Together, we are working alongside student government and administrators to ensure that all students get to enjoy the best of the Carnegie Mellon experience, regardless of their socioeconomic status. For those of us with some form of social or economic privilege, we must make it our collective mission to awaken ourselves to the reality that some members of our campus community are disproportionately affected by university policies and national, state, and local politics. We ought to accept the charge of breaking the uncomfortable silence surrounding economic injustice. And most importantly, the vision of Basic Needs involves transforming our renewed consciousness into concrete action and sustainable policies that will support all of our students far into the future.

Upon our formation this semester, the Basic Needs Working Group proposed and advocated for the establishment of an on-campus food pantry. These efforts are a direct response to the dire fact that so many of us are forced to choose between basic needs like food and other academic or life expenditures. The Basic Needs Working Group together with a number of administrators on the newly-formed Campus Food Insecurity Committee have developed a recommendation to the university administration for the establishment of an on-campus food pantry. This recommendation brings us a step closer to eliminating food insecurity for the campus community.

With nationwide initiatives to increase the diversity of their student populations, universities cannot afford to overlook the intersection of socioeconomic status with multiple facets of individual student identities in their efforts to promote inclusion. We can neither afford to allow bureaucratic bottlenecks and barriers impede or extinguish the progress that our students have already made toward advocating for the health and well-being of our campus community. We must scrutinize our own university’s current policies and initiatives while continuing to work together as a community of students, staff, faculty, and administration by taking a critical perspective on the financial burden and food insecurity that mar the Carnegie Mellon student experience.

If you want to get involved with raising awareness and advocating for the issues listed here, or any others that negatively impact the Carnegie Mellon student experience, you can email Sarah Pesi in the Basic Needs Working Group ( and Phoebe Dinh in Call to Action (