By Erica Hensley, UGA News Service
It’s a surprising but sad reality that some UGA students have to choose between buying their books and healthy food. To alleviate student hunger, UGA and friends of the university are offering scholarships for meal plans.
Now in its second year, Let All the Big Dawgs Eat is a food scholarship managed by UGA Student Affairs that aims to minimize food insecurity for students by providing meal plans for those who struggle to afford daily nutrition.
With seven-day meal plan options averaging over $4,000 per year, extenuating circumstances and financial limitations bar some students from on-campus dining. Student Affairs estimates 7,000 UGA students are food insecure or lack enough funding for basic life needs.
While attending the Tate Student Center’s 30th anniversary celebration in 2013, UGA alumna Robin Hoover discovered the student-run food pantry in the basement of the Tate Student Center. The pantry, which was founded by the Greek Life Panhellenic Council in 2011, serves as many as 100 students a day. Her visit shed light on the fact that some students struggle to afford both their college fees and healthy food. Hoover recognized the immediate need to minimize student hunger and food insecurities.
“We realized we needed to raise funds now and get hungry students on meal plans now,” Hoover said. Hoover and her husband and fellow alumnus, Wayne, worked with Jan Barham, associate dean of students and director of the Tate Student Center, to set up the Let All the Big Dawgs Eat scholarship. The Hoovers provided the initial donation to create the scholarship and have since led efforts to increase private donations so the program can continue and expand.
Allison Sawyer (this name has been changed to ensure student confidentiality) was working three jobs to send money home to her single mother who had recently fallen ill. The third-year student in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences was awarded the food scholarship earlier this year. It allowed her to go down to just one job, and she noticed a physical and emotional difference.
“I feel so much happier and healthier,” Sawyer said. “I am not half as tired as I used to be, and things in my life are starting to look up.”
Hunger not only negatively affects students’ health, but it also is a detriment to their academic livelihood.
“Studies show that students who eat better meals are more engaged; they perform better academically and are more successful,” Barham said. “For us, this is an issue of student success. It’s an issue of helping our students navigate the complications of college and setting them up for success both here and longterm. We know that it’s making a difference, and that’s the part that’s so rewarding.”
The UGA Office of Financial Aid estimates the cost of attending UGA for an in-state student-including tuition, books, meals and living expenses-for the 2015-2016 academic year is $25,134. The College Access Index, a recently released study by The New York Times, placed UGA in the nation’s top 10 public universities that do the most for low-income students. This leads to most students having secured tuition funds by the beginning of each semester, however, finding money for fees and books leave a few students wondering where their next meal will come from. While Let ALL the Big Dawgs Eat is new to UGA, the university has a history of ensuring student success through scholarships, grants, campus work and availability of institution and community resources.
UGA Food Services has worked to keep meal plan costs affordable by not raising meal plan rates since the 2013-2014 academic year. The department also added five new meal plans to better fit the lifestyles of students living on and off campus. Various meal plan options now exist that range from $1,800 for commuter block plans to $4,000 a year for all-access, seven-day meal plans with paw points. Despite meal plan options ranging in price, extenuating circumstances and financial limitations bar some students from on-campus dining.
Student Affairs estimates 7,000 UGA students are food insecure or lack enough funding for basic life needs. “What we’re hearing from our students is because they don’t have enough money to even finish paying their fees and everything else, the first thing they give up is their meal plan,” Barham said. “They tell you, ‘I have to choose between books and food, and I’m giving up my food,’ because it’s unfortunately considered the variable that can be sacrificed.”
This past spring semester, Student Affairs awarded the first round of scholarships to two recipients out of a 20-applicant pool. The only advertising for the scholarships was a small flier hung in the Tate Student Center food pantry.
Jessica Parks was one of those students. Then as a fourth-year finance major and now as a graduate student, she depends on the bus for her transportation to classes, home and a part-time job. Before the scholarship, she struggled to find time and money to shop and prepare healthy foods.
Parks, who interned in Vietnam last summer through International Student Life and is now pursuing a master’s degree in financial planning, partially credits the scholarship in motivating and enabling her to transition to graduate school.
“I had made a commitment to myself to eat healthily, and the scholarship allowed me to do that,” Parks said. “With the meal plan, the Georgia Room in Snelling Dining [Commons] became my No. 1 place to study. The seven-day meal plan scholarship … truly made a difference for me.”
After the first round of scholarships demonstrated a need for meal plan assistance, Student Affairs worked with Auxiliary Services to extend the then donor-based program.
By the beginning of fall semester, the number of scholarship applicants had grown to 218, a 91 percent increase. Eight scholarships were awarded. The donor program provided four and Food Services matched and funded four more.
While Let ALL the Big Dawgs Eat is new to UGA, the university has a history of ensuring student success through scholarships, grants, campus work and availability of institution and community resources. The College Access Index, a recently released study by The New York Times, placed UGA in the nation’s top 10 public universities that do the most for low-income students.
Student Affairs hopes to accent and foster the food scholarship’s impact with endowment and corporate support, but for now is relying on private and alumni donors and institutional support like that provided by Food Services.
“People who are hearing about this scholarship are really surprised that we have this need on campus,” Hoover said, “but the more the word gets out, the more support we are getting.”
“Our original goal of simply starting to give students food came to life with the help of donors,” Barham said, “and now we’re building on that original vision while still being able to feed hungry students every day.”
The scholarship program is raising funds to provide more student meal plan scholarships for next year. To donate, go to t.uga.edu/1Wr.