NYU’s meal delivery system for students undergoing the state-imposed quarantine was nothing short of a disaster. There were students surviving off of one meal a day, students getting all of their meals delivered at nighttime, students with dietary restrictions being violated and students receiving expired food. The quarantine meals became a viral social media phenomenon, with some students taking to TikTok and other social media platforms to document the meals (or lack thereof) that NYU has delivered to them. The university has since promised students $100 gift cards to order food with and issued an apology, promising changes to the way it operates.
Many have made light of the situation, cracking jokes and remarking how funny it is that students paying for such an expensive education are being served completely inadequate meals. But the whole phenomenon is reflective of serious issues — chronic food insecurity and a culture of elitism harming low-income students.
As the country reels from the worst economic crisis since the 1930s and unemployment skyrockets due to the pandemic, many are struggling to obtain food with no source of income. People have been waiting in poorly socially-distanced lines for hours outside of food pantries just to feed themselves and their families. Food insecurity is reaching all-time highs and is only projected to get worse — studies estimate that the rest of 2020 could see one in three adults and one in two children struggling with food insecurity.
Systemic racism is reflected in these rates, with nearly four in 10 Black and Hispanic households facing food insecurity compared to just over two in 10 white households. The pandemic has hit BIPOC much harder in terms of death rates, unemployment and food insecurity.
These disparities indicate that food insecurity during the pandemic is highly racialized, with low-income BIPOC being the most vulnerable. During NYU’s quarantine meal debacle, many remarked that NYU students were just being entitled for complaining and assumed that NYU’s high tuition meant that the student body consists of predominantly wealthy students.
There are certainly students who are privileged enough to be able to afford delivery and stock up their fridges with healthy, nutritious food. Some students with larger TikTok platforms have gotten free meals sent to them from viral videos, but not every student has the luxury of getting thousands of people to hear their stories. It’s the students without platforms and without high incomes who are put in the most vulnerable position because of NYU and Chartwells’ failures. The persistent misconception that NYU is full of wealthy trust fund students is turning low-income, food insecure students and their pleas for help into jokes.
Plus, reports indicate that Pell Grant recipients comprise 20% of the student body, with NYU being among the top schools for high rates of economic diversity. Racial diversity at NYU also means a large population of BIPOC students will also be affected. The NYU student body is no stranger to food insecurity.
Yet, many seem to take the crisis as a joke or a chance to boast about their own financial security. People took to social media in the wake of the NYU quarantine meal crisis to brag about living on off-campus housing, showing off their fully-stocked fridges or their own nutritious meals. Lower-income students confined to on-campus housing were erased because of NYU’s elite reputation, with some on social media saying anyone paying $400,000 tuition can afford to buy food.
What is lost in all of this is that students’ financial aid packages can restrict them to living on campus based on their “housing status.” Low-income students who depend on that financial aid have to maintain their housing status at NYU or their package would change. This crisis puts these students at an increased risk of food insecurity as a result of the university’s failure to provide adequate meals, but thanks to the stereotype that NYU is full of wealthy students and the culture of elitism within the student body itself, these students’ struggles are being made light of. The clicks and engagement on social media really aren’t worth the erasure of low-income and food insecure students. This is a time for solidarity and mutual aid, not selfishness and elitism.
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Email Asha Ramachandran at [email protected]