When Olivia Bowles started as a student at Tuskegee University, a historically Black institution in Tuskegee, Alabama, she noticed that the campus was in a food desert — an area that has few options for securing healthy and affordable foods. According to Bowles, “It was a culture shock. I learned quickly that the only way I could get healthy foods was to drive to Auburn, but I didn’t have a car. I had to rely on friends to drive me to Walmart and Publix.” She added, The prices are higher around campus as well.” Bowles chose Tuskegee because it met her criteria for college — “being away from home, experiencing a new culture and meeting new people, and having a vet school” — plus she wanted to attend a Historically Black Colleges or University (HBCU) — However, she didn’t visit campus prior to enrolling due to Covid, and didn’t realize Tuskegee was located in a food desert.
From the perspective of Z.W. Taylor, a faculty member at the University of Southern Mississippi, “Many higher education institutions are located in either distant and remote rural areas or in densely-populated urban areas where grocery stores are few and far between.” And, according to the National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments, one in three students experience food insecurity in the U.S.
Realizing that many college students are eligible for federal assistance, Olivia, now a senior, walks new students through the SNAP registration process to ensure they have access to healthy food. She volunteers with an organization called Bread for the World in her efforts to help students. Bread for the World works to bring light to hunger issues throughout the nation and the world. According to Bowles, “What drew me to Bread for the World after coming to Tuskegee was the lack of health foods in the area and the complexity of signing up for SNAP benefits. When you are in college, you want to make a change. Bread for the World promotes their mission on the Tuskegee campus.”
When helping students apply for benefits, Bowles tells students: “If you aren’t making money or you are on work study, if you don’t have a meal plan, you can apply for SNAP benefits.” She added, “A lot of students are nervous because they know they need the SNAP benefits, but don’t know how to apply.”
Bowles shared that she has friends on the Tuskegee campus who heavily rely on the dining hall for their meal plan, but the cafeteria closes at 7 p.m. Student who have late extracurricular events can’t get a nutritious meal. According to Bowles, “Having SNAP benefits allows students to go to Walmart or the Piggly Wiggly for food.”
Although there is often a stigma about receiving public assistance, Bowles shared, “I think being on Tuskegee University’s campus, being in the Tuskegee city and being within Macon County, there isn’t much of a stigma. I worked at the local Piggly Wiggly, and people regularly use SNAP in grocery stores. If anything, students are proud to have SNAP as you aren’t wasting money.”
Hailing from Virginia, Bowles’ family did a farm share — a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) sharing program. They had fresh fruits and vegetables. According to Bowles, “We did that 7-8 months of the year. I have a love for cooking and enjoy making meals.” Bowles added, “I was upset and angry about the lack of healthy food near Tuskegee. There’s no reason that children in this area don’t have healthy food options.”
According to David Street of Bread for the World, “Olivia is an exceptional advocate for people experiencing food insecurity – including students at Tuskegee University. Working alongside Olivia, I have been encouraged by how she has taken it upon herself to inform peers they are eligible to receive SNAP and then guide them through the process of applying for benefits. Despite her youth, she’s a strong voice uniting her classmates in urging Congress to pass a farm bill that improves SNAP and ensures everyone who is experiencing food insecurity has access to the program.”
HBCUs are often located in food deserts due to decades of systemic racism in cities and rural areas. According to Bowles, “When I talk to friends who are at other HBCUs — we notice that many HBCUs are right outside of major cities but there’s little to eat — that’s healthy around them.” She added, “College towns surrounding PWIs have more options.” “I’d love to see HBCU combat this issue.”
Just before the coronavirus pandemic, a survey of nearly 167,000 students found that for those student who struggled with food insecurity (nearly 40% of those surveys), fewer than 1 in 5 were enrolled in SNAP. This leads many students to resort to inexpensive, “nutrition-deficient diets consisting of foods like rice and Ramen noodles.” Students who lack consistent access to enough food are less likely to graduate than their food-secure peers. Street believes “This is what makes the work that Olivia is doing so important.”
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Macon County, where Tuskegee is located, does have a farmers’ market, but it is only open on Wednesdays and Saturdays and during limited months.