Food insecurity scrut graphic
Food insecurity scrut graphic By Matthew J. Tyler

Going Hungry at Harvard

While many view Harvard graduate students as members of the privileged elite, studying in Cambridge often requires students to endure precarious material conditions. A backdrop of high rent, low pay, and expensive groceries becomes acutely visible in their daily struggles to find their next meal.
By Saima S. Iqbal and Akila V. Muthukumar

For Eboni R. Nash, a first-generation, low-income student at the Harvard Divinity School, Tuesdays on campus were special. She and her friends would attend Community Tea gatherings, where they got to both eat lunch and pack up some of the leftover food for dinner.

Scanning the school’s calendar for events she could attend with Tupperware in hand was as routine as waiting for the Office of Student Life to refill its two food pantries each Tuesday.

Nash, who is now in her second year at HDS, first heard about the pantries during her orientation week. She notes that she and her classmates utilized them “more than [she] would have ever expected.” In her experience, the food was often gone within a day.

“They don’t get cheap things,” she explains. “They get nice things for people to have actually healthy balanced diets.” But if she were to go on a Thursday, it’s unlikely she’d find anything except some spare eggs and non-perishables.

Although Nash says she only spent money when necessary and received both financial aid and a housing stipend from Harvard, she struggled to pay her basic expenses. Her last fall on campus, she didn’t go grocery shopping for almost three months.

“It was just the way of life for me,” she says. “I can’t afford to go grocery shopping right now, because rent comes out tomorrow.”

Having returned home to Denver, Colo. last spring, she now balances “two lives,” one as an “Ivy League scholar” and the other as a financial provider for her family. Her formerly 45-hour work weeks have increased to 70 hours.

Eboni R. Nash is a second year student at the Harvard Divinity School.
Eboni R. Nash is a second year student at the Harvard Divinity School. By Courtesy of Eboni R. Nash

Nash’s experience is not an anomaly. While many view Harvard graduate students as members of the privileged elite, studying in Cambridge often requires students to endure precarious material conditions. A backdrop of high rent, low pay, and expensive groceries becomes acutely visible in their daily struggles to find their next meal.

Graduate students are in many ways charges of Harvard, but they are also often residents of Cambridge. The question of who should address their experiences of food insecurity, and how, remains ambiguous. Currently, forms of support both at Harvard and in Cambridge consist of short-term solutions like food pantries, which fail to address — and can even reinforce — the structures which produce food insecurity in the first place.

‘A Slap in the Face’

When Nash first learned she was accepted to HDS, she was afraid to tell her mother. She knew her mother would worry about how their family could afford graduate school, so she waited to share the news until she received her financial aid package. She reassured her mother that she was “financially taken care of.”

But as her first semester began, Nash, who studies Black liberation theology, found that the costs to simply travel to and live in Cambridge were extensive. “It was kind of a slap in the face,” she says.

Although Nash suspects she comes from a more challenging financial background than most students, she states that her experience is not uncommon. Several of her classmates have had to ask their parents for financial help, take out further student loans, or solicit the HDS Office of Financial Aid for advancements on refunds just to get by.

The reality that both food pantries at HDS — the dry pantry in Rockefeller Hall and the refrigerated one in Divinity Hall — regularly ran out of supplies soon after being refilled suggests that this financial instability sometimes manifests in food insecurity, as well.

While the Office of Student Life does not keep track of pantry visitors, Nash estimates that the two pantries served around 80 people a week — both those who were food insecure and those who simply needed a snack.

Nash does not blame HDS for her experience of food insecurity. Rather, she sees it as a product of the high price of rent in Cambridge. Because HDS is non-residential, the school offers eligible students housing stipends so they can afford to live nearby. Nash’s stipend covered just over half of her rent. To make up the additional $700 a month, she got a full-time minimum wage job, working a regular shift from 3 a.m. to noon during the week. She would attend her first class an hour after her shift ended, exhausted and fighting to focus.

“I struggled really hard the first semester there,” she remembers. “I would go to class and I would be so distant from everyone else.”

Now that HDS has shifted to remote learning, some students no longer shoulder the burden of paying for rent in Massachusetts. However, they may still experience food insecurity, in part due to other financial stressors.

To fulfill her own monetary obligations at home, Nash currently works even longer hours than she did before. She works the night shift at one job seven days a week, from 5 p.m. to 5:30 a.m., and works a second job three days a week. She says she is thankful that her professors are understanding when she seems less engaged in class.

In her position as social justice chair of the HDS Student Association, Nash acknowledges that it is difficult to reach students struggling with food insecurity during the pandemic. Both the HDS administration and student government have sought to ease the general financial burden on students, instead. The OSL has created emergency grants for those affected by the pandemic, with no questions asked, and the HDSSA has reduced its student activity fee.

Nash and her colleagues still worry about the students living in Cambridge who no longer have access to the inoperative HDS food pantries.

In 2017, students from the now-defunct Low Income Student Advocates group at HDS petitioned the OSL to create a food pantry for students. The group marked out a space in a lounge area for students to take what they needed and give what they could. This mutual aid network expanded when the burden of stocking the pantry shifted from students to a group of administrators. Following a generous anonymous donation, the OSL purchased a cabinet and a refrigerator, which they replenished with dry goods and produce items.

Lóre M. Stevens is a second-year master’s student at HDS studying to become a Unitarian Universalist Minister.
Lóre M. Stevens is a second-year master’s student at HDS studying to become a Unitarian Universalist Minister. By Courtesy of Lóre M. Stevens

Lóre M. Stevens, a second-year master’s student at HDS studying to become a Unitarian Universalist Minister, rarely used resources like the food pantries on campus — at least until the arrival of the pandemic.

When the school transitioned to remote learning, Stevens lost her second job, a work-study position at the Andover-Harvard Theological Library. While her first job covered her rent and most of her living expenses, she depended on this second job for her weekly food budget. HDS continued to pay her for the position throughout the end of the spring 2020 semester but not in the summer, when she usually continues to work. Stevens had planned to accept an additional work-study position conducting field education, but the program was cancelled due to the pandemic. Without these two sources of income, she says, she struggled to afford food.

On top of her financial stress, Stevens was afraid to visit grocery stores in person at the beginning of the pandemic. To limit her exposure to the virus, she elected to make bulk purchases of pantry staples once a month. She spent most of her time alone in her apartment in Arlington, Mass., trying to stretch out her limited supplies.

“I felt like I was in a post-apocalyptic disaster,” she says. “I lived in a bunker and I had to make this food last.”

She made it through this period by taking out additional student loans and winning money from academic competitions. Her landlord also lowered her rent.

But what most relieved the stress surrounding her meals was receiving help from a food pantry, Arlington Eats, run by a local church. Through the pantry’s services she received weekly deliveries of groceries which “took so much weight off [her] mind.”

“When I got [the first] lovely, big delivery of packaged food [and] fresh produce — I mean they had stuff like bok choy, apples, all sorts of good stuff — it was like freakin’ Christmas,” she remembers. “I was so excited to get fresh food, free food.”

Now that she has received a $1,400 stimulus check from the government, she has less of a need for the food pantry’s services. Still, she feels grateful for Arlington Eats. When its staff asked her to feature in a promotional video for the service to prove that people of all backgrounds, including seemingly well-supported Harvard students, can experience food insecurity, she agreed immediately.

Although she was aware of some of Harvard’s resources, such as HDS’s emergency grants, she never used them because her needs were met by her local community.

Food distribution takes place outside of the Cambridge Community Center. The Cambridge Community Center created its Food & Supply Pantry in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Food distribution takes place outside of the Cambridge Community Center. The Cambridge Community Center created its Food & Supply Pantry in response to the coronavirus pandemic. By Truong L. Nguyen

Still, she believes that if other Harvard graduate schools created mutual aid systems like those present at HDS and Arlington Eats, students could reach greater heights in their work and develop a closer relationship with the University.

“We often say that HDS is like the soul of Harvard,” she says. “If all of Harvard worked the way HDS does, they would center the needs of the students and have resources for food insecurity.”

Food Banks and Food Sovereignty

As they pass by 52 Church St., pedestrians see a pair of dark brown hands with pink nailpolish reaching up into the words, “‘Please Take What You Need And Leave What You Can’ -Your Community.” Painted by Boston-based artist Mithsuca Berry, the hands are part of a mural adorning the door of The Fridge in the Square.

The Fridge in the Square, located in front of The Sinclair nightclub, consists of a shed with both a fridge and a dry-good pantry accessible to those seeking meals at any hour, any day of the week. Long-time Cambridge residents, unhoused people, and students like Stevens alike often turn to mutual aid networks and resources, like the Fridge in the Square or churches, which provide free or inexpensive food.

One in eight residents in Massachusetts faces food insecurity, according to the Greater Boston Food Bank. Since March 2020, there’s been a 59 percent increase in food insecurity — the largest increase of any state, according to Feeding America — and the beginning of the pandemic saw a 400 percent increase in applications for the state’s public food assistance programs. As government aid falls short, community fridges step in.

Someone in Harvard Square peers into the "Fridge in the Square." This community fridge opened in January to help combat food insecurity.
Someone in Harvard Square peers into the "Fridge in the Square." This community fridge opened in January to help combat food insecurity. By Truong L. Nguyen

“Mutual aid comes from a place of anti-capitalism,” says Sara M. Brande, one of the Fridge in the Square’s volunteers. “[We] are doing this work for ourselves and for our neighbors and members of the community. The work that we do is not charity, it’s solidarity.”

The Harvard Square Business Association helped the team secure the Church St. venue, but it is volunteers who take shifts to sanitize the fridge handle between visits, clean spills, and restock inventory. The shelves empty and fill like clockwork, sometimes multiple times a day. And if a volunteer posts a wishlist to the fridge’s Instagram, which has nearly 2,200 followers, the drawers might be filled with colorful fruits and boxed meals within a few hours.

Although most of the fridge is filled with uncooked ingredients, the most requested items are pre-made meals, according to Brande — though locals and students can pick up fresh ingredients, they might not have the appliances or the time to transform them into a meal. But premade meal donations are more difficult to acquire, because they need to come from a commercial kitchen and have ingredients, allergens, and packaging and expiration dates all listed.

A T-stop away, in the outskirts of Central Square, Qian Mei, a Cambridge resident and climate change activist, volunteers with the Coast Community Fridge. The fridge was established last December by the Cambridge City Growers. The group seeks to enable people to connect with local land and the food that comes from it — to establish “food sovereignty.”

According to Mei, the principle of food sovereignty states that people should be anchored to the land that supports them. “We should have agency over the food that we eat, the food that we grow,” she explains. Mei’s team of planters believes there is a simple limiting factor for agriculture, and by extension produce, in Cambridge: land. Since its inception in April 2020, the Cambridge City Growers group has been encouraging people to grow food in their homes, parks, and parking lots.

Though the Coast Community Fridge began as a space for planters to store excess onions, tomatoes, peppers, and any other vegetables, it soon became a well-staffed community resource for the 13 percent of Cambridge residents who the Greater Boston Food Bank estimates are food insecure.

The Coast Community Fridge is located outside of the Cambridge Community Center. It is an initiative of the Cambridge City Growers, a group founded in April 2020.
The Coast Community Fridge is located outside of the Cambridge Community Center. It is an initiative of the Cambridge City Growers, a group founded in April 2020. By Truong L. Nguyen

Mei argues that the quick rise of the community fridge movement reflects the growing need for this resource, adding that she knows of four new fridges that are in the works in the Boston area. “They’re popping up all over the place.”

Still, community fridges, Mei points out, are at best a “surface level” solution. “The deeper rooted issue is lack of social infrastructure that’s put in place by policymakers,” she says.

She explains that the problem stems from a “bootstrap idea, neoliberal idea” that people simply need to work hard, adapt, and “get through it with grit.” But without the proper social support, people often have to choose between buying food and paying rent, insurance, or student debts. “Making trade-offs means you have food or you don’t have food,” Mei says.

Graduate students face a particular set of disadvantages when making these trade-offs. They are generally excluded from social security programs like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and their financial aid packages don’t always include housing or meal plans like those for undergraduate students.

While food pantries can be immensely helpful to individuals who are food-insecure, some argue that they can have pernicious effects on the food system at large, at least when treated as the sole approach to fighting food insecurity.

Tomaso Ferrando — a former Harvard Law School fellow and professor at the University of Antwerp whose work addresses the concept of the right to food — argues that in redistributing surplus food, food pantries sometimes obscure the dysfunction in local food markets, which results in the high market price and inaccessibility of food.

Ferrando maintains that the dominant approach in many cities, which is to rely heavily on food pantries, is “extremely problematic” because it creates a “false impression that we are actually tackling the issue.”

Still, the factors which contribute to food insecurity — like high rent or food deserts — are hard to unravel, making food pantries necessary, if insufficient.

For instance, the price of rent has skyrocketed in Cambridge for decades. Both Harvard and MIT’s presence in the city, as well as the booming biotech industry, have caused demand for housing units to greatly outstrip supply. While the solution seems simple — just build more units — existing efforts to construct affordable housing often face pushback from a vocal minority of community members.

Moreover, were affordable housing efforts to succeed, they still may not make Cambridge affordable for low-income families again. Alexander von Hoffman, a senior research fellow at Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, predicts that the number of new units needed to make a dent in the price of housing would be “so astronomical” as to be nearly impossible.

But so long as housing prices remain high, so will the cost of everything they affect.

‘The Only Thing I Can Control’

For Nupur Gurjar, a student in her last year of Harvard’s Master in Design Engineering program, grocery shopping is anything but quick and easy. Instead, the simple act of obtaining food for the week is one which demands strategic planning.

When she first arrived in Cambridge, the steep price of food in local supermarkets and bodegas shocked her. Gurjar had expected the cost of living to be higher than it was at home in Bengaluru, India, but was nevertheless surprised by how difficult it was to make ends meet as a Harvard graduate student, especially one with a scrupulous vegetarian diet.

In order to maintain her traditional way of eating, Gurjar chose to opt-out of GSAS’s meal and housing plans. She suspected she could make little use of the meal plan’s limited vegetarian offerings, and preferred to live in an apartment with more amenities, one where she could regularly prepare meals herself. Since the price of Harvard’s units is similar to market price, Gurjar, like many of her classmates, looked elsewhere. But despite frugal spending habits, she quickly began to struggle to afford weekly groceries — the added strain of rent and student loan payments was burdensome.

At the end of her first year at Harvard, when the lease to her first apartment expired, she decided to relocate to a new place based solely on its proximity to affordable grocery stores. She scoped out store after store, recording the different produce options and prices in a notebook, and found exactly one in her budget range: a chain supermarket named Market Basket, which also happened to be located near Little India, a rare Indian specialty store. She moved a bike ride away from the two stores.

Nupur Gurjar is in her last year of Harvard’s Master in Design Engineering program at SEAS and GSD.
Nupur Gurjar is in her last year of Harvard’s Master in Design Engineering program at SEAS and GSD. By Courtesy of Nupur Gurjar

She felt as if she had no other choice. “It’s Market Basket or nothing for me,” she says.

Yet even with this affordable option, her situation remains precarious.

The high price of rent often forces her to compromise on her diet’s quality and quantity. “Rent is expensive, which makes me want to spend very cautiously on food,” she explains. “It’s the only thing I can control — once I choose where I live, I have to pay [my rent] no matter what.”

At the store, she faces tough decisions on what items to spend on. Some weeks, she can afford to buy pricier products like cheese and pre-washed spinach; other weeks, she needs to pick cheaper, less processed foods, which can take longer to prepare. She counts granola bars and ice cream pints as indulgences out of her budget.

And while it helps to live closer by, Gurjar still finds it difficult to make it to the store due to her busy student schedule. Her trips to Market Basket typically take around two hours, sometimes more if she needs to bike through snow. During the shorter winter days, she can only block out the chunk of time to go grocery shopping around dawn, when it is “biting cold” outside. It is especially hard to muster the motivation to travel to the store during exam periods — times when she most needs nutritious food.

Because she depends on one store for most of her groceries, she is left stranded when the store closes due to extreme weather events or other extenuating circumstances. At the start of the pandemic, the supermarket remained open, but Gurjar felt unsafe shopping in person; she switched to using the store’s grocery delivery service, which was more convenient but also more expensive.

When she and her friends discuss their experiences at Harvard, they often promise each other that they will inform prospective students of the harsh conditions of everyday life in Cambridge, as well as the tips and tricks which make it easier to bear.

Gurjar believes that neither of the schools responsible for her degree have acknowledged the experience of food insecurity among some of their students. In her mind, the closest either the Graduate School of Design or the School Of Engineering and Applied Sciences has come to helping food insecure students is by sending email blasts about leftover food from events.

“If I have to speak for food-related accommodations from school, there really [aren’t] any,” she adds.

SEAS spokesperson Paul Karoff wrote in an email that the school is “not aware of the issue of food insecurity having been raised by any SEAS students (until your query),” but has maintained an emergency support fund for graduate students experiencing financial hardship.

GSD spokesperson Travis Dagenais declined to comment on the matter.

Gurjar supposes that food insecurity must either be a minor issue for most of the student body or, given how frequently her classmates lament the price of food, a deeply-entrenched problem without a clear solution.

“I think we are all just resigned to the situation,” she says. “This place has a higher cost of living [and] there’s nothing I can do about it.” Although Gurjar and her friends often entertain the idea of Harvard opening up a subsidized food market as a solution to food insecurity, they have not brought it up to student government.

‘Harvard Feels Like a Government’

Responding to anecdotal evidence of widespread food insecurity, the student association at the Harvard School of Public Health spoke to graduate students to learn more about their experiences. A survey issued in February 2019 found that one-third of 198 student respondents ate smaller quantities of food for financial concern; 30 percent struggled to purchase food at all.

At its annual spring 2019 meeting with HSPH administration, the School of Public Health Student Association (HCSA) sought to put a face to these numbers. Robin T. Glover, who had become the Associate Dean for Student Services at HSPH that January and currently serves in the role, vividly remembers the students who came forward and motivated the administration to take action.

“One particular story was a student who also had to support a family back home,” Glover recalls. She says that learning about students’ experiences with food insecurity was “surprising but [also] not,” given the cost of rent, tuition, textbooks, and other expenses that graduate students incur.

Lucas Buyon, president of HCSA in the 2019-2020 school year, attributes food insecurity to Boston’s high cost of living. He says anecdotally, students have met with unexpected housing expenses; when they need to cut down on spending, food is “the thing that falls away from that budget.”

Food and housing insecurity are also unevenly distributed. They “disproportionately affect Master’s students, doctoral students in partially funded programs, international students, and students of color among other groups,” says Emily M. Wright, a third-year Ph.D. candidate at HPSH and organizer for the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers (HGSU-UAW).

Wright explains these skewed effects: international students on an F-1 visa are limited to 20-hour work weeks, students with families to support face unique burdens, and many Master’s students lack comprehensive institutional funding for their programs. Critical of the administration’s handling of the situation, she believes that since food insecurity takes a greater toll on those with challenging financial circumstances, it cannot be addressed without generating additional sources of income.

Following the spring 2019 meeting with the HCSA, Glover convened an ad hoc food insecurity committee, composed of students and administrators. Among other initiatives, the committee held discussions at student orientation to reduce the stigma surrounding food insecurity, organized more financial counseling workshops, and hosted events instructing students on how to cook on a budget.

“If someone has food insecurity, regardless of what the reasons are, we are there as a resource to help them,” Glover says. “[Their] situation is assessed. What kind of help do you need? What resources that we have will work for you?”

One of the biggest programs the Dean’s office sponsored beginning January 2020 was the Daily Dollar Deal program, which provided breakfast and lunch at the Kresge Cafeteria to students for $1 each. For help with dinners and weekend meals, Glover’s office suggested purchasing a $10 meal kit from EatWell, a startup created by HSPH alumnus Daniel Wexler to make healthy eating more accessible.

When school was still in-person, students could also visit the snack cabinet outside of the Office of Student Services or email the Food Network listserv to see if there was leftover food from catered events.

Graduate students beyond HSPH, too, often rely on lunch or dinner events for free meals. Brandon J. Mancilla, president of HGSU-UAW, notes that it’s a “running joke, but actually quite sad.” But with the shift to virtual learning, the snack cabinet, listserv, and events are no longer options.

The pandemic has delayed other initiatives, including a grant for a food bank. Last spring, Glover reached out to the Medical School’s Countway Library, proposing a food pantry that could serve the larger Longwood campus community, including students at the medical and dental schools. Glover imagines that students could staff the pantry and benefit from the additional work opportunity.

Glover maintains that the pandemic has not impacted how students’ needs are met by the school, thanks to the school’s hardship funds. Even prior to the pandemic, HSPH administrators had solicited alumni donations for a general Student Emergency Fund to which students could apply for financial assistance.

Many of the initiatives focus on students’ acute needs or lifestyles. Wright maintains that these food pantries, workshops, and forms of one-time financial assistance are band-aids that do not address the underlying issues.

“I, and a lot of other folks that I work with at HGSU, see a primary driver of folks’ experiences of food insecurity at HSPH [as] the fact that graduate student stipends and pay at Harvard are just inadequate and inequitable,” she says.

Indeed, the student survey results point to financial hardship as the main cause of food insecurity. Wright believes that students’ persistent needs will only be met by robust financial assistance.

Graduate students receive two primary sources of compensation from Harvard: stipends for coursework and a salary for teaching. Their specific wages vary widely, subject to the whims of different programs of study and complex University policies.

She notes anecdotally that several teaching assistants at HSPH are paid less than their peers at other Harvard graduate schools, and claims that in private negotiations with HGSU-UAW, the HPSH administration requested a provision allowing a differential of up to 33 percent less pay for its graduate students.

To Wright, this is “a clear sign of the administration’s disregard for crucial public health work.”

Todd Datz, spokesperson for HSPH, wrote in an emailed statement that “increasing student financial aid is one of the Dean’s highest priorities,” citing how from 2017 to 2020, tuition aid from the Dean’s unrestricted funds grew from $3.87 million to $5.98 million and student stipends on the Dean’s unrestricted funds rose from $1.12 million to $4.61 million. Datz declined to comment on negotiations over graduate student pay rates.

“We have a rich university who acknowledges that there’s an issue with certain students’ livelihoods and sets up these mutual aid food banks, which is good on paper,” Mancilla adds. To him, though these resources provide short-term solace, the structural issues of insufficient salaries and onerous student debt persist.

The brunt of labor, he highlights, both to bring attention to these issues and to sustain solutions, often falls onto students’ shoulders.

“Grad school is already an incredibly alienating, isolating, and lonely time for lots of people,” Mancilla shares, pointing to mental health strains that are only exacerbated by the pandemic.

He says that the demanding workload of establishing and maintaining a pantry, for instance, “should not be on students,” who are overworked, underpaid, and only on campus for a few years at a time.

For Gurjar, who herself spends hours each week just trying to stay fed, Harvard could take a larger role. “Harvard feels like a government in itself, capable of that policy and that power to make things happen,” she says. “A place like Harvard can set a good example of really caring for students who are living on a scholarship or living on student loans who are talented enough to be here, but find it really hard to just get through those two years.”

— Staff writer Akila V. Muthukumar can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @akila29m.

— Staff writer Saima S. Iqbal can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @siqbal839.