Campus food pantries expand to support students’ basic needs

Credit: Courtesy of UC Davis

UC Davis students sort through donations that will be stocked in the university’s food pantry.

Roy Vicerra, a first-year student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, is like other college students who balance jobs with school and life. Working in his campus food pantry, Vicerra is able to actively help his fellow students to focus on balancing their lives as well, without the worry of food insecurity. 

“I’m glad whenever there’s a new shipment and there’s a lot of food. It puts a smile on students’ faces,” Vicerra said. “And it shows that, you know, I might not know what their situation is, but I’m glad it made their day better.”

In light of recent initiatives to aid California students with basic needs such as food insecurity, resources like food pantries have expanded to help fight hunger on college campuses. 

The University of California Special Committee on Basic Needs released a report in 2022 indicating 43% of undergraduate students reported being food insecure, up from 39% in 2020. Food insecurity is defined as an inability to access or afford a sufficient amount of food to meet one’s basic needs.

Aid is available for individuals, including students, meeting low-income eligibility requirements through CalFresh, a supplemental food program offered by the state’s Department of Social Services. However, students and others can still be food insecure even if they do not necessarily qualify for government assistance, and the need for aid is expected to grow with the recent end of additional pandemic-related CalFresh benefits. Food pantries offer a more direct and guaranteed way to access food. 

Basic needs centers at California State University and UC campuses receive $15 million and $18.5 million, respectively, in recurring funding from the state for improving programs that aid students with safe and adequate housing, sufficient nutritious food, access to health care, affordable transportation and needs for students with dependents. In terms of food insecurity, this funding helps to expand resources like food pantries on campuses. 

At many schools, food pantries are continuously growing to meet the needs of students. Jennifer Rosko, director of student involvement and programs at UC San Francisco, said UCSF’s food pantry started off as a weekly food market before becoming a permanent space. 

Campus food pantries expand to support students’ basic needs

Credit: Courtesy of UC San Francisco

UC San Francisco volunteers set up a produce table for the campus’s weekly food market.

According to data from its food markets, UCSF was able to reach a third of its student population with free food services.

“Ninety-eight percent of our students that are participating in this weekly market said that it made them more food secure, 97% said it reduced their food stress and 92% said it made them eat healthier because of the program,” Rosko said, highlighting the program’s impact.

With UCSF’s partnership with the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank, there has been an additional emphasis on creativity, Rosko said, citing an example. 

“We’ll print out recipes at the market that people can pick up where they’re picking up the food,” Rosko said. These recipes are based on the food available at the pantry and market, and are typically posted on social media as well.

Within the UC system, other schools have approached addressing food insecurity similarly, but they are also adapting to each campus’ individual circumstances. 

Martin Tellez, assistant director for basic needs at UC Davis, oversees the food programs and resources on campus. As an agriculture-focused school, the UC Davis food programs source produce from student farms on campus, Tellez said. 

Tellez said logistics are essential, too, especially when trying to combat the stigma that is often attached to being food insecure because “it’s an issue that goes beyond the individual.” 

For example, the UC Davis food pantry used to be located in the basement but moved to the first floor in 2018, in the building next to the Aggie Compass Basic Needs Center

“The intention behind that is we don’t want students to feel like we ourselves are stigmatizing the pantry,” Tellez said. “We want it to be an open-access resource; we want it to be student-facing.”

Students who use the food pantry at Davis can customize their experiences to what they are comfortable with and have time for, by being able to choose between ordering online and visiting in person. Some items are only available online, Tellez said, noting that food insecurity is different for every student and that there is not a “one-size-fits-all solution.”

Just as Vicerra works at Cal Poly’s food pantry, Tellez said that students help staff the one at UC Davis, which has helped to further destigmatize college food insecurity.

“It changes the dynamic when the person helping you might be a CalFresh recipient themselves,” Tellez said. “And they can really talk to how they use their benefits or locations where they can get some really good food items.”

Emma Robertson is a third-year journalism student minoring in sociology at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and Arabel Meyer is a third-year journalism student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Both are members of EdSource’s California Student Journalism Corps.

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