Two Virginia Tech doctoral students have launched an initiative they hope helps students who experience food insecurity at Virginia Tech.

Anurag Mantha and Cortney Steele created Food Access for Students, a volunteer group, to provide students in need with $200 cash cards to buy groceries and other necessities. They established a GoFundMe site to raise funds for their work.

Mantha, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in civil engineering, originally from India, came up with the idea after reading about a similar program at a university. Steele, a Ph.D. candidate in human nutrition, foods, and exercise, has been concerned about the problem for years and wanted a way to take action to combat it. She is president of Food Access for Students, while Mantha is treasurer.

Mantha said he and Steele have been aware of and participated in discussions about food insecurity across Virginia Tech since the summer of 2018. They knew people who were not sure where they would find their next meal and students who were not eating because they had no ability to purchase the food they needed.

“It’s a conversation we’ve had with other graduate students. A lot of us have had this on our minds,” Steele said.

They said several studies have shown that college and university students in institutions across the U.S. report experiencing levels of food insecurity. A 2018 Government Accounting Office review of 31 studies found food insecurity as a significant problem, with 9 to 50 percent of students reporting they experienced food insecurities. A February 2019 article in USA Today noted that more than 650 universities and colleges had opened food pantries for their students. Virginia Tech is not immune from the problem, Steele and Mantha noted. Preliminary results from a recent survey of Virginia Tech students revealed that 35 percent of graduate students and 29 percent of undergraduates reported experiencing low or very low levels of food security.

“Numerous factors contribute to this situation, such as low student wages and graduate stipends, high living and dining costs in Blacksburg, and rising costs of education and student loan debt,” the fundraising site set up by Mantha and Steele states, which mirrors conclusions in the 2018 GAO report.

Mantha, who said he comes from a privileged background, said he experienced food insecurity at one point during his time at Virginia Tech. Like many other students, he did not seek assistance, he said.

“In general, there is a stigma associated with asking for help,” Mantha said, adding that he felt assistance was for other people. “It’s the feeling that somebody else needs it more than me.”

He and Steele also said some students do not seek help because of the application or qualification process some programs require. Mantha said Food Access for Students aims to help a wide range of students, including those who experienced emergencies or unexpected events that depleted savings or left them short of money to cover basic costs.

“Most students don’t have a lot of savings,” he said.

Mantha said their effort is a way to help students deal with one element of food insecurity: access. It was something he and Steele felt they could manage, while hoping to ignite conversation and awareness of the problem. Paraphrasing education activist Sara Goldrick-Rab, Mantha said they felt they should not “sit on the data,” but needed to take action.

“We were talking about things to do, but we never implemented anything,” Steele said.

The lack of action was not because of a lack of desire, they said. The Graduate Student Assembly had considered creating a program to help students, but Mantha said the student governance structure was not able to support the idea. He came up with the idea of the Food Access initiative while browsing online forums about graduate education in September. He found a post asking readers to share something their schools do to support students. One respondent said the school gave out cash cards to students in need, no questions asked.

That resonated and provided the germ of what is now Food Access for Students. But as an international student without residency status, Mantha could not launch the project alone. He needed a U.S. citizen to partner with him. “Cortney stepped up and said, ‘I’m on board,’” he said. Mantha has since become a permanent U.S. resident.

They developed and activated the GoFundMe site in early October, with Steele as president and Mantha as treasurer, and began spreading the word about their venture on social media and through presentations to groups on campus.

They set an initial goal of $10,000 to raise enough to buy and then distribute 50 cash cards, but said they anticipate increasing that so they can help more students. But the greater impact is hearing people talk about the issue of food insecurity. They also hope to develop partnerships and relationships with organizations on campus and in the community that may refer students to them.

Additionally, the two may be able to refer students to other organizations on campus or in the community for more assistance. “We are willing to partner with anyone at the university who wishes to support us,” Mantha said.

They also hope to establish partnerships with local grocery stores, buying cash cards that can be redeemed at those stores.

As of the afternoon of Oct. 22, the site had raised $4,000 from donors, who gave gifts ranging from $10 to $500. Steele and Mantha are encouraged by the support.

One of their supporters who has shared news of the project is Vice President and Dean for Graduate Education Karen P. DePauw.

“It is wonderful to know that graduate students are so concerned about their fellow graduate students and to take action. Their efforts are very much appreciated,” DePauw said.

The project is only weeks old, but if it continues to grow and raise awareness, Mantha and Steele said they may expand it. “This cause is important to a lot of people. It gives them a way to contribute” Mantha said.

When they are ready to begin distributing aid, they said organizations can reach out to them and refer students, or students can refer themselves.. Steele said there will be no application process. All information shared with Food Access for Students will be confidential, they said.

Other Virginia Tech students have asked to become involved with Food Access for Students, and Steele said they are open to adding members. “We want to grow,” Steele said. “More people will be joining us.”

For more information about Food Access For Students, visit the website, or contact Steele and Mantha at foodaccess4students@gmail.com.