Historically black land-grant colleges and universities were created to be centers of food and agriculture research, but in reality many of their students live in food deserts with little access to grocery stores or restaurants.
A majority of the so-called 1890 institutions, named for the year they were incorporated into the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s land-grant program, are located in low-income, rural areas. Most are at least four miles from the nearest grocer on the map, an analysis by POLITICO shows.
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Land-grant institutions were founded to provide an agricultural education to students and they receive federal funding to do so. Yet the lack of viable food options around their campuses could make it tough to attract and maintain students, those familiar with the schools say.
1890 schools are particularly isolated along the Black Belt, a region in the South named for the color of its super-rich soil. Alabama A&M University is almost five miles from the nearest grocery store and so is Alcorn State in western Mississippi, POLITICO found. At one college, some alumni donate food, fearing that students are even going hungry.
Tuskegee, Ala., home to Tuskegee University and the work of agricultural pioneers like Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver, is ground zero of the food desert crisis at 1890 schools. Its single grocery store, a Piggly Wiggly, contains limited fresh produce options and the hours at the university’s on-campus cafeteria are not accommodating to students who work or take evening classes.
“There is a huge issue of food insecurity at Tuskegee,” said Rev. Audrey Rodgers, director of Tuskegee’s Methodist-sponsored Wesley Foundation, which runs a community garden close to campus. “Students know that if you live in Macon County, you live in a food desert.”
The demographics of Macon County, which ranks among Alabama’s poorest, sit in stark contrast to those of its neighbor, Lee County, home to Auburn University. Though it is also a land-grant institution, Auburn and the city around it have much more food variety than the 1890 counterpart. POLITICO found six times more grocery stores in Lee County — prompting Tuskegee students to drive there to shop, those familiar with the school say.
They shouldn’t feel like they have to leave town to eat, though, according to Norma Dawkins, associate professor of food science and nutrition at Tuskegee.
“It’s a matter of perception,” Dawkins explained. “People have this preconceived idea that because [a grocery store] is in Macon County it’s not good.”
College years shape an individual’s personal nutrition and are often when people begin to establish common food-related habits, according to some experts.
“Those are the years when you’re responsible for making your own purchasing decisions around food for the first time,” said Dr. Heather Wooten, an independent affiliate of Onside Partners, a consulting firm for philanthropic and non-profit organizations. “College is a time when you’re beginning to develop independent skills around shopping and meal prep and cooking.”
In the absence of food variety and limited hours at on-campus cafeterias, 1890 students have found other ways to feed themselves. At Tuskegee, student-led food pantries and farm share programs like those with the Wesley Foundation are becoming more common to provide students fresh produce and other items not available on campus or at the nearest grocery store.
Kiyana Porter, a senior at Tuskegee, was inspired to create a food pantry after noticing the lack of food access both on and off campus. She struggled to travel to grocery options outside Macon County before bringing her car to school and often joined her peers in missing meals at the cafeteria because it closed too early for them.
A survey she conducted of 60 students found that 40 percent are food insecure, which means they don’t have consistent access to adequate food. Among all respondents, 98 percent said that Tuskegee needed a food pantry.
These results only confirmed what Porter already knew. When it comes to healthy food options, the city of Tuskegee, she said, is “lacking in some parts.” And it is profoundly affecting students’ ability to eat.
“The community definitely needs a grocery store,” Porter said. “Not only are students food insecure, but people in the community have a need.”
Alumni have also gotten involved, donating both money and foodstuffs to the Wesley Foundation’s garden and Porter’s food pantry.
“It’s really baffling for a lot of our alumni to see students going hungry when the university is surrounded by so much arable land,” Rodgers said. “It’s a matter of other people who have more resources saying, ‘Hey, we can help with this.’”
Unlike Lee County, which ranks among Alabama’s top 10 wealthiest counties, Macon County has few employers outside of the university and maintains a high unemployment rate. The lack of jobs in Tuskegee, some argue, is what has made grocery stores reluctant to expand into the town.
“We cannot compare apples and oranges,” Dawkins said of the stark difference between Macon and Lee counties. “It’s a much bigger issue than Tuskegee being in a food desert. It’s a matter of sustainability. Why would a grocery company open in this town when they do not have the clientele?”
Keneshia Grant, assistant professor of political science at Howard University, said the lack of food options around some HBCUs is a function of the neighborhoods more than the universities themselves. It’s something she observed as a student at Florida A&M University, which is four miles from the closest grocery store.
Grant explained that most HBCUs are located in communities that were historically segregated and predominantly black. Even as some of the neighborhoods begin to gentrify, the lack of affordable grocery stores still makes it difficult for students to find good food.
More, as college admissions remain competitive, the lack of amenities around some HBCUs can deter potential students who may be unfamiliar with the schools’ histories and educations and take their rural locations at face value, college officials worry.
“Students have many options for their college search,” Grant said. “I could imagine a scenario where a student does want to attend an HBCU and is making a decision in the same way they’re making a decision about all schools.”
1890 leaders are eyeing the 2018 farm bill as a chance to change that. Its provisions include an added $40 million in mandatory funding to give full scholarships to students who opt to study agriculture at any of the 1890s — an extra $2 million for each university.
It’s made 1890 presidents feel carefully optimistic about the potential to cultivate a new generation of black farmers who will revitalize communities like those surrounding their schools. Most were long aware of the lack of healthy food options, but were more focused on securing scholarship funds and maintaining campus infrastructure.
Lawmakers saw the investment as a good sign for the future of 1890 institutions. A number of them are alumni of the universities that will benefit from its funding.
“We’re looking at food deserts as one of our issues,” said Rep. Alma Adams (D-N.C.), who was one of the foremost voices in favor of adding the scholarship. She added that she believes 1890 HBCUs could make more immediate changes in the food demographics of their communities “based on some of the funding that’s available.”
To Langston University President Kent Smith in Langston, Okla., who’s also chairman of the Council of 1890 Institutions, that’s “exactly where we want to go.”
“Anything is possible,” Smith said. “Large chain stores and grocery stores look at demographics and population and they’re just not as willing to bring those entities in. But if we can create our own, that would enhance the community as a whole.”