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A Tale of Two Schools: Exploring Food Access Between FAMU and FSU

 Railroad tracks form a dividing line between Florida State and Florida A&M University. They're also a psychological barrier for some people when examined through the broader social history of the city.
Illustrated by Selina Lee
Railroad tracks form a dividing line between Florida State and Florida A&M University. They're also a psychological barrier for some people when examined through the broader social history of the city.

Eating, or satiety, is a basic physiological need. How that need is met can vary from person to person, moment to moment, and, increasingly often, is dependent on income. In Tallahassee, between its two public universities, those income and access lines can be as pronounced as the railroad tracks that divide the two schools. One school caters to predominantly white, and higher-income families, while the other was created to serve communities of color, and particularly, low-income African American students.

 This is a tale of two of those students, two different backgrounds, at two different universities, with only a few things in common: they live in the same city and have the same fundamental need: hunger. But how they meet it is emblematic of the differences in geographic access as we view the deeper socio-economic concerns around the growing problem of food insecurity.

How FAMU student Janeen Meeks gets her groceries


 FAMU student Janeen Meeks is a Tallahassee native and relies heavily on her financial aid to purchase food for herself and family during the school year.
Illustrated by Selina Lee
FAMU student Janeen Meeks is a Tallahassee native and relies heavily on her financial aid to purchase food for herself and family during the school year.

Today is a regular shopping day. Many students at Florida A&M University, a Historically Black University, and Florida State University, a Predominately White Institution, will find some free time before, after, or in between their classes and extracurricular activities to find their next meals. Whether it’s to last them a few hours, a few days or a couple weeks, they can’t go without the basic human necessity of food. 

This meal could range from a three-finger combo from Canes to a chicken & rice bowl from Chipotle, a haul of groceries or a buffet assorted meal from the universities’ many dining halls and on-campus facilities. And what students have access to and can afford in Tallahassee looks different depending on which university you’re closest to.

“I know buying groceries, especially if you have a household of like two or more people, can be a bit expensive,” said Florida A&M University Graphic Design Major and freelance artist Janeen Meeks.

She knows from experience. Meeks lives at home with her mother and sister. She has her go-to food source: local food pantries. Yet on the day I met Meeks, she was concerned because her local pantry was closed. Meeks used to be employed by a Tallahassee animal shelter, but a recent illness left her unemployed. In the meantime, she’s used her financial aid and freelancing income to get by. But her financial stability is teetering. That’s where the pantries come in.

“So, depending on the food pantry is a really good alternative [to buying groceries,” said Meeks. “And they all usually provide you with all the necessary food groups that you need to keep a balanced diet.”

When she can’t make it to the pantry, she turns to the grocery store, specifically, a Fresh 4 Less that’s near her North Monroe area home. It’s here where Meeks, donning a fanny pack with a blue and orange gradient sweatshirt and black-framed glasses, begins to make the food choices that will define her next few days.

She begins to stroll through the produce section while Meeks explains how inexpensive most of the foods are. She favors fruits over vegetables and starts evaluating the apple section, where she picks up a container of caramel.

“I will get this…as a treat," she says of the caramel. "We’ll hope we have enough money for that."

Meeks usually picks up frozen, ready-made meals as a budget saver, and to help her food last longer. Fresher options can go bad within a few days. Frozen options can last for a while.

“For a moment I was really skeptical on trying Banquet cuz like—I don’t know, I had the skepticism of like if it costs one dollar it wouldn’t be good, but then I tried it out and it was actually pretty good,” she said. “Usually, when I am low on money, I would always go for a frozen product, because it's usually cheaper. Most of the time, it's already combined,” and covers most basics, like carbohydrates, vegetables, and protein.

 At the end of the grocery haul, Meeks’ items included a couple frozen meals, apples, pork & beans and caramel. She hopes it lasts for a few days. If not, back to the food pantry she will go.

 According to a study published by Sara Goldrick-Rab, 23% of undergraduates and 12% of graduate students experienced food insecurity. Furthermore, food insecurity falls into the basic needs category and affects 35% of Black/African American students, 30% of Native American students, and 25% of Hispanic students. For-profit colleges and universities and Historically Black Colleges and Universities have the highest rates of basic needs insecurity among their students.

 When money isn’t an issue, Meeks likes to buy more raw ingredients like smoked meats and vegetables. She enjoys making meals. A few weeks after the grocery store trip, Meeks is in a better place financially.

 “I can definitely tell you, because now I have received my financial aid, I'm able to afford more food. Now, if we were to go grocery shopping again, I would actually be able to buy more raw products versus getting frozen foods.”

FSU's McKinnon Bell goes grocery shopping

 FSU student McKinnon Bell's family are vegan. On occasion, she'll switch to a vegetarian diet, but maintains her strict eating habits, though her mainstream and on-campus options are few.
Illustrated by Selina Lee
FSU student McKinnon Bell's family are vegan. On occasion, she'll switch to a vegetarian diet, but maintains her strict eating habits, though her mainstream and on-campus options are few.

On a different day, five miles away from Fresh 4 Less, we followed McKinnon Bell for a grocery haul at a Publix on Ocala Street.

Bell is a communications grad student at FSU. She looks after and lives with her grandparents while going to school full-time.

“I am working, I work on campus as a graduate assistant, which is really nice, because for those who don't know, being a grad assistant waives your tuition,” she says. She continues to explain how helpful her job and family are, so she isn’t financially independent. She says, “Housing expenses are something I fortunately do not have to worry about. It was also strategic for me coming to this university was being able to live with my family…So I handle all the grocery shopping and cooking. And then they'll pay for the groceries, which I think is fantastic.”

“They’re like OG hippies from the 70s,” she says of her family with a quick laugh. “[They] grow their own food, everything [is] organic so yeah, it’s a fun time.”

On this shopping excursion, Bell is wearing a bright yellow t-shirt, long brown hair that lands on her mid-back, blue shorts, a scrunchie on her wrist and a small bag strapped across her body. She casually makes her way toward the dairy section as she explains she was barely allowed to have sugar in the house growing up, but now that she lives with her grandparents, well, Papa can’t go to sleep without his midnight pie.

Bell grabs a half gallon of Publix brand fat-free milk and Sargento Aged Swiss Slices. She specifically buys their milk from Publix because they think it lasts longer.

We had to stop filming in the store, so we met McKinnon outside for her final haul.

“We spent some money today,” she explains while showing off items like Triscuit crackers, cookie dough and a large package of limited-edition cranberry cheese. McKinnon said this is where most of the budget went. The cranberry cheese is her papa’s favorite.

The rest of the haul included blue cheese and bananas.

“I think forty dollars for eight things is a little steep, but I know I got things that aren’t really a necessity. I knew they would cost a little more, but I’m not getting them every day so it’s okay,” she said.

Bell adds that her family doesn’t have a tight budget, but they’re also not buying anything extravagant. For Bell and her grandparents, the three of them find themselves satisfied with pizza or buying bread to make sandwiches for the week.

“We're really fortunate about that, they have a really good retirement plan, and therefore paying for food isn't really a worry for us. We're really privileged in that regard. But never really a tight budget,” she says.

Bell and her grandparents also like to utilize resources they already have like plants and lemons to make their own jams.

Food pantries step into the gap


Food insecurity doesn’t happen overnight. It trickles down from systemic issues like high rent costs, low wages, and financial instability.

These factors often intersect in higher education because outside of obtaining an education, students also have to navigate life’s challenges. An unexpected bill, a failed exam, relationship drama, health issues, etc.

Outside of grocery shopping, takeout, food delivery services and on-campus dining, there are food pantries for students and the community to utilize. According tofoodpantries.org, there are 24 pantries in Tallahassee and according to our data, only about 2% of FSU and 3% of FAMU students use pantries often.

 Food for Thought is the FSU-based food pantry, originally born as a casual snack closet and quick food to grab for students in 2009. Food for Thought served 878 students in October 2023, which is 2% of FSU’s overall student population.

“So, to be honest, I mean, I've always loved food, right? That's part of some of the, let's say ethical commitments that drive me to do work around food access. I love to eat. I love to cook,” says Hailey Gentile, the program manager for Food for Thought. She’s passionate about her job and her office decor and personal clothing choices echo her feelings about food and her desire to feed students.

On this day at her on-campus office, Gentile is sporting a black t-shirt with the word “ONION” in a silver metallic font written across it, accompanied by a bunch of yellow onions in the center. Her desk is sprawled with mini food figurines like quiche and a skull-shaped head of lettuce. Behind her sits a few anime posters, bowtie pasta wall art and boxes of dry food sit all around the other half of her office.

Gentile took us through her journey at Food for Thought and how the program serves its students.

“About 45% of the students that we serve are international students, and most of those students are graduate students. So those are students that have come to the United States to seek a degree to try and, you know, better their economic prospects,” she says.

Economic barriers for international students could include being unable to receive loans, currency changes and other geopolitical conflicts. She also explained how all students across the campus can be served by the pantry.

She points out that one of the pantry’s biggest supporters is the campus dining service.

“Seminole Dining, who runs the dining halls and the paid locations on campus, does support us a lot and does care about, you know, the battle we're fighting. So, they do things like a couple of times a week and usually bring us some prepackaged meals. So, it's like a full meal that can be microwaved, and it lists what's in it.”

Several attempts were made to reach FAMU’s food pantry for this story. All were unsuccessful. 

During the pandemic, Gentile saw a big jump in hungry students. COVID-19 affected the way food pantries operate. Pantry employees can’t work from home, so what do you do? After finding out students could not return after spring break in 2020, the pantry needed to figure out how to continue serving students.

“I developed a plan, and we started taking orders for food, which we do not do currently and did not do prior to that time. But people would fill out a Google form and say ‘I want XYZ, I have these allergies or these dietary limitations’. We'd get the bag together, we had a tent downstairs, I'd call up, they put the refrigerated items, and they bring it down, we'd set it on the cart, for the student basically. So that's how we functioned basically all throughout 2020,” Gentile says, explaining how they operated at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.


Location, location, location


 A map of FSU's campus and available grocers and food pantries nearby
Illustrated by Alison Wong
A map of FSU's campus and available grocers and food pantries nearby

Access is defined as being able to use, enter, or get near. On a basic search for grocery stores near FAMU’s and FSU’s campuses, options include Publix GreenWise, Piggly Wiggly and Winn Dixie. These grocers have ingredients like raw meats, produce, dry goods as well as kitchen tools and hot foods. GreenWise markets more organic foods that are pricier than Piggly Wiggly’s foods, which are cheaper and locally sourced.

 A map of Tallahassee showing FAMU's campus and available grocers and food pantries
Illustrated by Alison Wong
A map of Tallahassee showing FAMU's campus and available grocers and food pantries

So why, according to our survey, are 42% of FAMU students traveling four miles to get their food versus 43% of FSU students only traveling two miles?

We asked students what their main mode of transportation was at FAMU and FSU. A majority of students at both universities drive to get their food. Most students travel 1-2 miles off-campus, FSU (50%) while FAMU (40%); however, 35% of FAMU students travel 3-4 miles.

Following Janeen and McKinnon for a regular shopping day showed exactly that.

The Publix McKinnon shopped at is about two miles away from FSU while the Fresh 4 Less Janeen went to is about seven miles away from FAMU. Both students have a car to get them to and from their campus, but as Janeen gets closer to campus, her access to food looks different. She pointed out GreenWise being near FAMU’s campus, but that it’s on the other side of the tracks.

A few restaurants surrounding FAMU’s campus include Olean’s Restaurant, Auntie’s Kitchen, and Shrimp Stop. Near FSU’s campus, you have Denny’s, Chick-fil-A and Tally Mac Shack. But directly across the tracks from FAMU’s campus sits Railroad Square and Gaines Streets with restaurants like Big Bowls, The Bark, Gaines Street Pies, Clean Eats, and Vale Food Co.

It raises questions about access and how different food services decide where to be placed in Tallahassee such as: Why are there two Chick-fil-As walking distance from each other near FSU?

“So, all the companies are chasing profit, they will be located in locations where they think they make the most profit. So, then it comes down to the size of the student body, the faculty body, and then how much money the faculty-student body spent on these food-related purchases,” said Kerry Fang, an FSU associate professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning. Her focus is economic development and land use. She asks herself questions like, “why some regions are rich while others are poor?” and “what policy tools can help create jobs and boost innovation?”

According to FSU’s Office of Institutional Research, the total student population is 43,701.

In 2023 the main campus is 487.5 acres. According to FAMU’s Institutional Research, the total student population is 9,265 with the main campus being 422 acres in 2023.

“There's also the lack of a regulation process of it. What are the restrictions on what business you can put there? That's typically related to zoning code building codes, like planning-related regulations. And that may also come into play in terms of— you definitely can see there are fewer spots on campus compared to just right off campus,” said Fang.

She further explains how permits can be harder to obtain if a food business wants to be on campus.

“On both campuses, what are the restrictions on what business you can put there? And that's typically related to zoning code building codes, like planning-related regulations. And that may also come into play in terms of like—you definitely can see there are fewer spots on campus compared to just right off campus.”

She isn’t sure of the exact process of each university’s permit process to identify bias, but she does know that bias can show up where race is concerned whether it’s on or off campus.

“There's definitely going to be racial disparity into all food access, just in general, let alone on campus… I saw some studies specifically about communities, you know, minority communities, are more likely to have grocery stores that do not have much fresh food. More like processed foods,” she says.

When it comes to grocery store location decisions, Fang says it’s partly market and regulation.

“The zoning regulation makes it hard for a lot of food options to be located there. And at the same time the market is driven because these minority communities are more likely to be low-income. So, like all the non-fresh groceries will come in, but that will then perpetuate the process,” she says.

How students view Tallahassee’s food access


 A bar graph representing the distance FAMU and FSU students travel off campus for food
Illustrated by Alison Wong
A bar graph representing the distance FAMU and FSU students travel off campus for food

 The percentage of student respondents who say they can afford healthy food options near them
Illustrated by Alison Wong
The percentage of student respondents who say they can afford healthy food options near them

FAMU and FSU students Janeen Meeks and McKinnon Bell have extensive backgrounds in Tallahassee.

Bell’s grandparents live here, and she visited them often before attending FSU. She’s still a strict vegetarian so she says food options for her in general can be difficult. She says that vegetarian options on campus aren’t accessible.

“At my old school, we'd always go to the farmers’ market and things like that. And there are opportunities here in Tallahassee, but they are much more spaced out and I feel like it's a little more difficult to get to.”

Meeks, now that her financial aid is in, has spent more time lately enjoying a lot of sushi and pulled pork macaroni & cheese. She’s from the area but hadn’t considered food options until she started attending FAMU. Her first impression of the on-campus choices was that they were lacking.

“We do have, like, a variety. But really if you want--if you are health conscious, the only really good food, you can go to either Tropical Smoothie or the actual main cafeteria. And even then, it's kind of still a little shaky on that,” she says.

Of the 266 students surveyed, 202 said they feel they have adequate access to food options. However, 57 students disagree or strongly disagree that they have adequate access to healthy foods near them.

Some aspects of privilege are visibly clear between these two college campuses. The railroad tracks not only provide physical boundaries to the schools, but act as a sort of mental boundary for, primarily, some students of color and those who attended FAMU. This speaks to the area's history of segregation, and the idea of HBCU’s as “lesser” institutions.

Crossing the tracks for many students means seeing a demographic change regarding income, housing, and race. The railroad represents where more development is happening. There are parks, restaurants and new student housing being built closer to FSU’s campus versus the older, more vacant lots that remain closer to FAMU’s campus. There’s also a visible difference in color saturation between the two sides of the railroad regarding trees, greenspaces, and artwork.

“Like everything that crosses the railroad track that we have splitting the two colleges. It's like, this is FAMU’s side, this is what we have. And then on the other side of the tracks, that's what FSU has. So that's, that's at least how I see it,” Meeks explains. She further details why it makes her uncomfortable.

“FSU students, for example, will have a better opportunity to go there versus FAMU students because—you have to cross over Gaines Street to go get it. But you know, GreenWise is like right there on campus…with FAMU students, we don't really have an option. It's very, I guess, isolated when it comes to marketplaces,” she said.

Bell says she feels she can afford healthy options on and off campus, but discusses greenwashing which, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, is the act of making false or misleading statements about the environmental benefits of a product or practice.

“I think that has to do with the food options. I prioritize if that makes sense. I work in sustainability a lot too, so greenwashing is something that's very interesting to me the organic kind of plot scheme and so I think by focusing more so like on natural ingredients, fruits and vegetables without realizing they have to be like, don't buy your things pre-sliced and you're gonna save a lot of money, just take the time to cut them themselves. I think there's so many horrible options on campus. I think there's affordable options if you look in the right places off campus.”

Both McKinnon and Janeen want better for their campuses.

“Let's get some more restaurants next to us [the campus], that would help. You know, so kids don't have to constantly go to the cafe,” Meeks says.

“I’d love to see more of pescatarian, vegetarian, vegan options on campus,” for students with different diets says Bell. “I think it would just open it up a lot so that people like me or with other dietary restrictions aren't kind of limited to one place on campus. Because when you're eating at one place, you're gonna start to get sick of it, no matter how good it is,” she says.

Other HBCUs near PWIs face similar differences in food access

Hundreds of miles away in Texas, North Carolina and Alabama, over 1,000 families and college students are being provided foods they need by MarketBoxx. North Carolina A&T University alums MakaylaWilliams and Alexis Wray started MarketBoxx as students in 2019 with the intention to address food insecurity at NCAT. She spoke about how NCAT’s and the University of North Carolina Greensboro are near each other, but the differences in food access for students differ, similar to our project being that NCAT is an HBCU and UNCG is a PWI.

“Not only did we see that comparison, and the lack of access to food, when it came to, you know, the HBCU that we went to, but also we just watched as our friends at times, would have a difficult time deciding between whether they were going to eat some nights, or whether they were going to buy their books or pay their bills,” Wray says.

The MarketBoxx founders know that many students have mini-fridges and a microwave and felt that it was important to connect with the students and pantries to know what kinds of foods they want. While a can of corn has a long shelf life, many of these students don’t have a can opener so they find it more beneficial to give a student a cup of macaroni and cheese that only requires water and a microwave.

“We'll usually communicate with them [food pantries] and ask them like, you know, ‘do you need anything right now?’...We'll talk to them about their needs at the pantry. And we'll try our very best to like, get them everything that they need,” Wray explains.

 The percentage of student survey respondents who say they feel their nearby food options are adequate
Illustrated by Alison Wong
The percentage of student survey respondents who say they feel their nearby food options are adequate

She also shared that every pantry they serve is different. There are pantries where students prefer canned foods and other campuses like Fayetteville State University’s pantry have international students that requested a donation of international snacks.

The most important part of Alexis and Makayla’s work is that it doesn’t matter who they serve. If they have the chance to help students, they will. MarketBoxx has served at least five campuses and has two ways to serve food. One is through a bulk food donation to campus pantries and the other is filling a box with items for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks to directly serve to students. They make a conscious effort to visit each campus to get a feel of the environment to know how they should cater to the students’ needs.

“I think it makes a difference coming from two black women who went to an HBCU. I think it makes a difference that that food is coming from us, you know, versus like, some white folks who love to throw the word ‘charity’ around. Because we know what it looks like and feels like to be hungry. And in a way, it feels like mutual aid. Yeah, we want to feed everyone who wants food,” Wray says.

Back at Florida State University, Food for Thought’s program manager Haley Gentile continues to assist and chat with students during the interview, organizing dry foods like ramen, and peanut butter and frozen foods like yogurt and cheese.

We also couldn’t help but talk about her arms covered in food tattoos.

“These are actually like, brand new,” she says, pointing at her arm covered in food illustrations including garlic, a carrot and a lobster.

“Food to me, I mean, it's life, right?” she says. “We all need sustenance; we need it to survive. But also… when we're not constrained materially, food can be a source of community. It can be fun, and about exploration and artistry and I love food for all of those reasons. You know, it brings people together and no one should be denied it.”

Copyright 2023 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.

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