When Olivia Bowles started her journey as a student at Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Alabama, she was faced with the reality that the campus was located in a food desert. Finding healthy and affordable food options was a challenge for her. She soon discovered that the only way to access such food was by driving to Auburn, a nearby town, but she didn’t have a car and had to rely on friends for transportation. Additionally, the cost of food around campus was higher than usual. Despite these challenges, Bowles chose Tuskegee because it fulfilled her criteria for a college experience and offered a veterinary school. However, due to the coronavirus pandemic, she did not have the opportunity to visit the campus beforehand and was unaware of its location in a food desert.
Many higher education institutions, like Tuskegee, are situated in remote rural areas or densely populated urban areas with limited access to grocery stores, according to ZW Taylor, a faculty member at the University of Southern Mississippi. The National Center for Safe and Supportive Learning Environments reports that one in three students in the United States faces food insecurity. Olivia Bowles is one of those students who recognized her eligibility for federal aid and now assists other students in navigating the SNAP enrollment process, ensuring that they can access healthy food. She volunteers with an organization called Bread for the World, which aims to tackle hunger issues nationally and globally.
Bowles is attracted to Bread for the World because of its mission to address the lack of healthy food options in the area and the complexity of applying for SNAP benefits. She believes that as a college student, it is important to make a difference, and Bread for the World promotes that mission on the Tuskegee campus. She helps students apply for SNAP benefits, emphasizing that even if they don’t have a meal plan or income, they are eligible for assistance. Bowles has observed that some students heavily rely on the cafeteria for their meals, but its limited operating hours make it difficult for students with late extracurricular activities to access nutritious food. With SNAP benefits, students can purchase food from local stores like Walmart or Piggly Wiggly.
Although there may be a stigma surrounding receiving welfare benefits, Bowles proudly supports SNAP because it allows students to make the most of their limited resources. Growing up in a family that ran a community supported agriculture program, she understands the importance of having access to fresh fruits and vegetables. She strongly believes that there is no reason why children in her area should not have healthy food options. David Street of Bread for the World commends Bowles for her advocacy efforts in addressing food insecurity among students at Tuskegee University. He praises her commitment and young age, as she actively encourages her peers to urge Congress to pass a farm bill that improves the SNAP program and makes it accessible to all individuals facing food insecurity.
Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are often located in food deserts due to systemic racism in both urban and rural areas. Bowles has learned from her friends at other HBCUs that these institutions are usually located just outside major cities, but have limited food options, unlike the university towns surrounding predominantly white institutions. Bowles hopes that HBCUs can actively combat this issue.
A study conducted before the coronavirus pandemic revealed that 50% of students surveyed, including nearly 40% of those surveyed, were struggling with food insecurity. Surprisingly, less than one in five of these individuals were enrolled in SNAP. Consequently, many students resort to inexpensive, but not necessarily nutritious, meals like rice and ramen. Students who don’t have consistent access to enough food are less likely to graduate compared to food-secure students. This is why Olivia Bowles’ work is so important, according to David Street.
In Macon County, where Tuskegee is located, there is a farmers market, but it is only open on Wednesdays and Saturdays during certain months. The issue of food insecurity in HBCUs and the broader education system is a topic that I, as the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Endowed Chair in Education and Distinguished Professor at Rutgers University Graduate School of Education, have extensively studied and written about. I have authored or edited 29 books, focusing on various aspects of education, including the experiences of Black scientists, diversity in education, and the role of Black colleges. My latest book, “Doing the Right Thing: How Colleges and Universities Can Undo Systemic Racism in Faculty Recruitment,” highlights the need to address systemic racism in faculty hiring practices.