By Albert Raboteau
When Hema and Mehul Sanghani learned how many Virginia Tech students were struggling to have enough healthy and nutritious meals, they felt compelled to act.
Supported by a $1.5 million donation by the alumni couple, the university recently launched an innovative program to enhance food access for today’s Hokies. This initiative, called The Market of Virginia Tech, provides up to 75 students at a time with enough fresh ingredients to make nine meals per week.
The program is run by Virginia Tech Student Affairs, which encourages any undergraduate or graduate students who are facing food insecurity to contact the dean of students’ office to be referred for help from this program or other means of assistance.
“The Market is a new way to help more students get the healthy food and nutrition that can be so important to academic success,” Virginia Tech President Tim Sands said. “Hema and Mehul’s decision to step forward in such a meaningful way exemplifies the Virginia Tech spirit of Ut Prosim (That I May Serve). Their generosity is an inspiration, and this new and innovative program will make a difference for many.”
The Sanghanis were inspired to make their gift, in part, by a Virginia Tech study released in October 2019 that showed 29 percent of undergraduates and 35 percent of graduate students having low or very low food security. “Low food security” means a student has a reduced diet quality, whereas “very low food security” means a student is experiencing disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.
“Food insecurity often hides in the shadows,” said Hema Sanghani, a member of the Class of 1999 who earned her degree in finance and is a manager at CGI Federal, which provides information technology services to U.S. federal agencies. “The university’s research on food insecurity opened our eyes to an issue that is often overlooked or unknown: food insecurity exists on college campuses nationwide, including Virginia Tech.”
“One of the greatest feelings in the world is knowing that we — as individuals — could make a difference on such an impactful and pervasive issue for students,” added Mehul Sanghani. “Food insecurity on college campuses is an issue made even more pronounced by the pandemic. We were compelled to do our part and proposed a partnership with our alma mater on a meaningful solution. We’re elated to partner with Virginia Tech to make our vision for The Market a reality and serve our fellow Hokies.”
Mehul Sanghani is a member of the Class of 1998 who earned separate bachelor’s degrees in industrial and systems engineering and in psychology. He is also the CEO and founder of Octo Consulting Group, a nationally recognized technology and consulting firm based in Reston, Virginia.
The Sanghanis live in Vienna, Virginia. Mehul Sanghani is a native of Blacksburg, site of Virginia Tech’s largest campus. Hema Sanghani grew up in Lynchburg, Virginia, a less than two-hour drive from that campus.
Nearly 11 percent of all U.S. households were food insecure at some point in 2019, according to the latest figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A nationwide survey done in 2019 by the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice indicated 33 percent of students at four-year colleges or universities were food insecure at some point in the 30 days before they were questioned.
Most data on the scope of food insecurity among college students predates the COVID-19 pandemic’s disruptions to higher education and society at large that swept across the United States in March and remain a major challenge today. But the pandemic is widely assumed to have worsened the problem. And a smaller Hope Center survey conducted from mid-April to mid-May that included respondents from 15 four-year schools showed 38 percent of them were affected by food insecurity, a higher percentage than in the 2019 study.
“Mehul and Hema made their gift before the pandemic had such a dramatic impact, but it could not have come at a more critical time,” said Frank Shushok, Virginia Tech’s vice president for student affairs. “Their generosity is helping us respond at a moment when our students face unprecedented uncertainty, stress, and financial challenges. This pandemic is hard on all students, but for some more than others. It’s heartbreaking to think that many students have to worry about how to get a healthy meal, but that’s the reality.”
While COVID-19 did not prompt the Sanghanis’ gift, it did influence how the university set up The Market. Hundreds of colleges and universities run food pantries nationwide, but the vast majority are physical spaces where students go in and select items. Virginia Tech took a decidedly different approach to launching The Market by instead structuring its support system online. Students who are referred to the program by the dean of students’ office log into a special website, choose from among several menu items, and pick up their food at the university’s Graduate Life Center.
“Having an online-driven system provides more flexibility and distancing during the uncertain environment created by COVID-19, but it also helps to maintain the privacy of students who participate in the program,” said Gina Hancock, a consultant who coordinated the university’s work to launch The Market. “There is an unfortunate stigma around asking for help with food that can sometimes keep people from coming forward. So we know it’s important to take steps to prevent that from being a barrier to students who can benefit from this program.”
The dean of students’ office started fielding inquiries during the first week of September from any students interested in signing up for assistance. But the process of designing the program began during the spring 2020 semester.
Faculty and staff from several departments who are experts in areas like food access, nutrition, student affairs, and logistics participated in the effort, devoting more than 1,000 hours combined. A pilot program to help determine the best way to proceed took place in the summer and involved dozens of students who received food-assistance and provided feedback. Now that the program is running at a larger scale, feedback from the students who are being helped is being taken each week.
One such student recently wrote that the “program has allowed me the peace of mind to focus on school work and simply allowing me to stay in the moment to be the most effective I can each day without having constant thoughts or worries distracting me when it comes to knowing I will be okay and fed that week and the week after! It has made such a difference in my life! Thank You!”
According to another student who shared feedback: “This program is indeed very helpful. On the one hand, it provides healthy food to students who can’t afford it. On the other hand, this aid is very significant from the psychological point of view: this shows that our university really cares about its students, which is very important during these unprecedented times.”
Ralph Hall, an associate professor in the School of Public Affairs, was lead author on the food-security study Virginia Tech released in October, and has continued to research the issue among the university’s students, including ones who participated in The Market’s pilot program.
“Food security is a complex problem and a student’s access to food can change with their life circumstances,” Hall said. “The Market project is an exciting opportunity to combine research with action to make a difference in innovative new ways. One of the most impactful findings from our evaluation of the pilot program was the overwhelming feeling among participants that the university really cares about their well-being.”
While working to set up The Market, the university also engaged community leaders who work to help with food assistance.
Jim Pearman, who chairs the board of Feeding Southwest Virginia, said Virginia Tech’s project was welcome news for the region.
“University students almost never come forward to request help from our traditional food pantries, but that does not mean they do not have need,” Pearman said. “It’s encouraging to see the university making this issue a priority and looking to help in a way that’s tailored to the particular challenges that students face.”
Bret Gresham is campus minister for Wesley at Virginia Tech, which has run a food pantry catering to university students since 2013.
“It’s great to see a university that’s not just pushing this under the rug,” Gresham said. “No one group can conquer food insecurity on campus. The fact that Tech sees this is a need and wants to do something more about it, it’s just so encouraging.”
Karen DePauw is vice president and dean for graduate education. Among the areas she oversees is the Graduate Life Center, where students who participate in the program pick up their food each week.
“Research has shown that graduate students are likely to face food insecurity, and we feel this is a good location for any student to come to get their produce because the GLC is accessible by foot, by car, or by public transport,” DePauw said. “The Market is a wonderful new initiative. It’s so important to help our students and show how much we care about them and their families, especially in these uncertain times.”
Mehul Sanghani, who also serves on the university’s Board of Visitors, said he believes The Market fits right in with his university’s culture of caring.
“We hope The Market will have a positive impact on our community, compel others to offer their support on this important issue, and serve to underscore our passion and commitment to Virginia Tech’s motto Ut Prosim (That I May Serve),” he said.
By helping students to access healthy food the Sanghanis aim to help them reach their full potential as well.
“We want every student at Virginia Tech to succeed,” Hema Sanghani said. “We hope that The Market will be a resource for those who desperately need it and help ensure that every Hokie is on a path toward success.”
Judging from feedback from students so far, the program is already having a major impact.
“I spent my first two years of college hungry,” one student recently wrote while sharing feedback. “I lost almost 20 pounds trying to make do with what I had. I remember going to work and being on the verge of passing out, going to class and not being able to pay attention, going home and struggling to find the energy to get out of bed. The mental toll of chronic hunger is that you gain a sort of existential cynicism towards life. You could be doing everything you possibly could, and you’d still feel miserable inside and out. I am so appreciative of the fact that someone noticed this largely invisible issue and cared enough to help.”