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The University of Wisconsin Oshkosh is known for stepping up in times of need.

When the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, caused countless businesses to shutter in mid-March, more families needed help putting food on the table. It’s not surprising UWO has been helping in the fight against hunger.

UWO associate marketing professor Melissa Bublitz’s research commentary on food access for those experiencing hunger amid the COVID-19 pandemic was published recently in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing. And members of the UWO campus community have been lending a hand with food distribution.

Confronting hunger amidst a crisis

“The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed systematic vulnerabilities in food access for people experiencing hunger,” said Bublitz, who notes the pandemic has simultaneously revealed opportunities to strengthen food access.

Bublitz has worked for five years with Hunger Task Force (HTF), an anti-hunger nonprofit organization that operates a food bank in Milwaukee, but the researchers’ work is relevant to hunger happening all over the country. Bublitz co-authored the paper on food access and vulnerability and several other papers with UW-Milwaukee researcher Laura Peracchio and staff from Milwaukee’s HTF: Natalie Czarkowski, Jonathan Hansen and Sherrie Tussler.

The pandemic caused more people to experience need, or vulnerability, and Bublitz said that tends to change how people view the problem of hunger and whose responsibility it is to address it on local, state and national levels.

Three lessons about food access were outlined related to the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • The systematic problem of food access requires a systematic solution
  • Organizers must collaborate to serve people in need
  • Facing hunger transforms attitudes toward people who experience hunger

Researchers found the problem of food access does not occur in isolation—many who face hunger also need access to housing, healthcare, childcare, job training and other services. Providing for such needs through separate channels creates systematic inefficiencies, highlighting the importance of coordination between nonprofit and governmental partners.

Bublitz said her work with Hunger Task Force will continue for the next few years.

“I’m currently working with HTF and other research partners to design research projects that help us examine how food subsidies for fresh fruits and vegetables influence demand on their Mobile Markets that serve as a grocery store on wheels in food deserts,” she said.

Campus works food distribution

A group of UW Oshkosh volunteers helped staff a weekly drive-up food distribution event that takes place Mondays outside Kolf Sports Center.

Mike Lueder, assistant director for civic engagement for the University Studies Program, serves on the board of directors for the Oshkosh Area Community Pantry. He organized the team of volunteers for the local Farmer to Families food distribution event—a partnership between the USDA, Valley Bakers and Feeding America—that is taking place with weekly distribution around the state through August.

UW Oshkosh serves as the distribution site for the area, and UWO supplied volunteers for the distribution in the first week of July.

“To date, there have been 9,500 boxes of food, each weighing about 40 pounds, distributed,” Lueder said after last week’s event. “That’s 380,000 pounds of food!”

Food insecurity had been on the minds of students at UWO even before the pandemic.

Research by McNair Scholar Joy Evans, who graduated in spring, showed about one-third of the UWO student population and over half of the University’s population of students of color were experiencing food insecurity.

The work of Oshkosh Student Association and other student groups culminated last semester when The Cabinet food pantry was officially opened Feb. 11 at Titan Underground inside Reeve Union.

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