UK students detail food, housing struggles at public assembly


Students raise their hands during an all-student assembly, held to address growing concerns surrounding food and housing insecurity among UK students, in Memorial Hall in Lexington, Ky., on March 21, 2019. Photo by Rick Childress | Staff

Rick Childress

An assembly of nearly 200 clapping, snapping and screaming students gathered in Memorial Hall on Thursday afternoon to support demands for a more focused university response to growing concerns over housing and food insecurity on UK’s campus.

The assembly, which was moderated by a panel of Student Government officials, was held mainly to address demands set forth by SSTOP Hunger, as student group pushing the university to create a new fully funded and fully staffed on-campus location called the Basic Needs Center that would distribute funds and resources to students who struggle to make ends meet. 

SSTOP Hunger members said they’ve met twice with university officials to go over the plans but said that administrators were “dismissive” of the Basic Needs Center.

The clamor for a Basic Needs Center comes after a survey, which contends that a significant portion of UK students are food and housing insecure, was widely circulated among the campus community by students, the university and news media.

UK has responded via multiple statements to the Kernel with the university’s concerns with SSTOP Hunger’s demands and its own plan to address hunger and housing insecurity on campus. 

A few dozen students, prompted by the assembly, gave passionate testimonies before the Memorial Hall crowd. Many of them recounted their own personal experiences with food and housing insecurity.

Lidya Azad, a SSTOP Hunger member, took the podium first. She said the widely circulated food and housing survey was conducted over two years by UK researchers.

The survey’s findings are based on 2,000 interviews with UK students. It contends that 43 percent of UK students experience some food insecurity and 8 percent are housing insecure. About 19 percent of those surveyed reported being “hungry, meaning they experienced very low food security.”

Similar to the survey, Azad defined food insecurity as an individual’s inability “to pay for food and for rent at the same time,” or an individual’s inability to afford a nutritious diet. Housing insecurity was defined as “not having a stable place to live.”

She encouraged students in the crowd to support SSTOP Hunger’s campaign and she urged the SGA to discuss the issue internally. Azad said that when SSTOP Hunger brought their plan and their concerns before administrators, they were “unreceptive.” 

Jay Blanton, the university spokesperson, wrote in a statement to the Kernel that the university wants to fight food insecurity on campus, but that the university does not see a Basic Needs Center as the best way of doing that.

“Where we respectfully disagree is on the best approach to enhancing that commitment,” Blanton said. “The proposal put forward by SSTOP is essentially to spend almost $200,000 annually on several new staff positions to assist students in locating multiple services that already exist. Let’s do what needs to be done to feed students, not feed a bureaucracy.”

Students of multiple walks of life followed Azad. Graduate students, transgender students, black students, students with leadership positions and several others each took to the podium to voice their support for the campaign and for the creation of a Basic Needs Center. 

Izzy Thomas, a human nutrition freshman and the incoming president for Big Blue Pantry— an on-campus resource designed to assist food insecure students— told the crowd that the Pantry along with several other on-campus organizations endorses the Basic Needs Center.

After the event, Thomas said that Big Blue Pantry “currently provides a bandage” for food insecure students, but she said that the pantry is not able to do enough.

“The need has outgrown what we can do,” Thomas said. “We serve 600 students and there’s 13,000 that are food insecure on campus… We fully support the Basic Needs Center because we think that they can do more than we can.”

Katie Mount, a junior history major, told the assembly through tears that she was able to pay for tuition, food and rent only after working over 50 hours per week this past summer and close to 40 hours during the school year. 

“There’s only so much that the university really offers for students who have severe financial need,” Mount said. “There are thousands of students like me. Thousands of people like me who think they need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and work every single day just to be able to afford a basic right of education.”

Mount said she almost couldn’t make rent in January, but she was saved by her tax refund. She calculated that she only spent $20 on groceries that month.

“My federal refund saved me from getting evicted and saved me from not being able to pay my rent,” Mount said. “But I shouldn’t have to rely on the money I gave to the government to be able subside in my life and pay for my food.”

The crowd gave Mount a standing ovation as she took her seat.

Michael Hamilton, the SGA president, said that he was really happy to see people come out, speak and “engage in the conversation.”

“The conversation that we had tonight was very fruitful,” Hamilton said. “We have a lot to think about and we have a lot to work on and we know that.”

Hamilton said that SGA will discuss the issues brought forth by the assembly with its staff and Senate and will determine whether the SGA could be doing more.

Beau Revlett, a senior philosophy major and SSTOP Hunger organizer, said he thought the event was “amazing.”

“People came and spoke for themselves,” Revlett said. “Most of the people that spoke were not with SSTOP. I haven’t met most of them and they spoke from their own personal experience and their own personal beliefs and a lot of them echoed a lot of things that SSTOP is fighting for.”

Revlett said that SSTOP has met twice with administrators, but during both administrators were unwilling to bend towards SSTOPS demands. 

Blanton said via several statements that the university is proposing its own plans to battle student food and housing insecurity.

Those plans would include collecting data at Big Blue Pantry and potentially expanding it, developing a “Basic Needs One Stop” website that would direct students to food, housing and financial resources, and putting out a new survey to collect more data.

University officials have cast some doubt on the survey, which states that thousands of students often go hungry. 

“The survey administered by SSTOP Hunger was a good first step,” Blanton said. “But there are design issues that should be addressed to ensure a more representative sample of the student population. Estimates of food insecurity at the state level, for example, are far lower. Is our student population that different from the general population of the state? Let’s create a foundation of facts that we can all agree and which can then inform our efforts in the most thoughtful and strategic way possible.”

Blanton said that administrators have met with SSTOP Hunger multiple times and other administrators from Student and Academic Life will continue to meet with the students. 

Revlett said that SSTOP is hosting a day of free food on Wednesday, March 27, which will be punctuated by a large dinner in the Funkhouser Building where SSTOP will announce its next step.