Close Mobile Menu

Food for Thought: Making a Dent in the Crisis of Student Hunger at UC Berkeley

May 11, 2016
by Katia Savchuk
pantry UC Berkeley Food Pantry; photo by Nick Fiske

When he embarked on his freshman year at UC Berkeley in 2014, Esteban Vasquez was set to become the first in his family to graduate from college. A couple of months in, he was ready to drop out.

During Vasquez’s first week in school, his grandmother died, robbing him of a loved one as well as family income, which came from the state money his mother received for being his grandmother’s caregiver. His father, who once toiled in onion, lettuce and strawberry fields in Oxnard, hadn’t worked much since being injured in a car crash in 2011. Vasquez knew his parents couldn’t help him financially, but now he’d also need to send money back home. He wondered how he would eat outside of the 10 meals a week his meal plan covered. “How do I ration out my food? Should I spend $8 on lunch or skip it? I’m hungry now, but should I spend the little money I have?” he recalls asking. “I was honestly overwhelmed.”

After missing too many meals to function adequately, Vasquez approached Melissa Barker, associate director of student engagement at the Cal Alumni Association, and told her he was thinking of going home. She pointed him to the UC Berkeley Food Pantry, which had launched the previous spring to provide emergency relief to students going hungry or lacking nutritious food.

The UCs “have the opportunity to model and lead the nation in terms of responding to this challenge.”

He started visiting the pantry in Stiles Hall twice a month to pick up pasta, Clif Bars and apple juice—he was allowed five items each time, meant to supplement his diet for up to 10 days. Not only did he begin relying on the pantry to get through tough spells, but he also started volunteering there for three hours a week. In March of 2015, he became coordinator of internal operations, a work-study position.

“To me the food pantry was a blessing. I wouldn’t have been able to achieve my goals without it,” he says. “It’s an honor to be part of a team that helps some of my best friends and people in my classes.”

The food pantry is one of several initiatives UC Berkeley has rolled out in the past three years to address a growing problem of hunger and deficient eating among students already struggling with rising tuition and living costs. Although need still exists, the responses—some initiated by faculty and administrators, others by students—have started to make a dent.

“We are at the forefront countrywide,” says Ruben Canedo, a research and mobilization coordinator at UC Berkeley Centers for Educational Equity who regularly speaks about the UC system’s food security efforts at national conferences. “[The UCs] have the opportunity to model and lead the nation in terms of responding to this challenge in a way that is research-based, collaborative, innovative and sustainable.”

UC Berkeley Food Pantry student coordinators Esteban Vasquez, Jocelyn Hsu and Sammy Mehtar; photo by Rajelin Escondo

A food bank targeting only Cal students with dependent children, known as The Bear Pantry, has been around since 2009. But after surveys of nine UC campuses showed that 1 out of every four undergraduates was skipping too many meals, student leaders and administrators at Berkeley realized that other students also needed emergency relief. Sadia Saifuddin, then a junior in student government, proposed the facility, modeled on similar ones at other UC campuses, in a March 2013 bill. Since the UC Berkeley Food Pantry opened in April 2014, it has provided sustenance to 1,800 students, who combined have made more than 3,000 visits there.

“People think of hunger as starving children in developing countries, but hunger has different faces,” says junior Jocelyn Hsu, the food pantry’s community engagement and marketing coordinator. “The food pantry has changed people’s lives.”

She recalled a young woman who peeked in shyly one day. “I only have a pickle left at home and maybe some cereal. The food pantry is going to give me food for the next week,” she told Hsu.

The pantry stocks fresh produce from organizations including: the Alameda County Community Food Bank; the Student Organic Gardening Association, which operates a garden one block from campus; and the Berkeley Student Food Collective, the campus’s non-profit cooperative grocery store. A campus nutritionist vets nonperishables, such as canned vegetables and tuna, which Cal Dining sources from a national distributor of natural and organic foods. The Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Student Services and Fees has provided all funding so far, totaling nearly $200,000.

The pantry is open to undergraduate and graduate students regardless of income status. “If a student needs the help, we’re not going to turn them away. There seems to be more of a stigma against using the food pantry if you have to provide financial information,” Vasquez says.

For Vasquez, finding the pantry was a turning point. The University of California’s Blue and Gold Opportunity Plan, for students from families with annual incomes less than $80,000, covers his tuition and fees. Vasquez also receives $6,000 a year through The Achievement Award Program, a scholarship from the alumni association. But he still struggles to afford food while paying $712 in rent for his room in a Berkeley apartment, utilities, transportation and occasional support for his family.

“It stopped my stomach from growling in classes. And it’s rewarding to know that this school cares about food security and how healthy the students are,” Vasquez says.

When food insecurity was recognized as a growing problem at UC Berkeley around 2010, the initial response was ad hoc, according to Canedo. Advisors and counselors put out granola bars and fruit and doled out gift cards to grocery stores. In 2013, Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Harry Le Grande created a Food Security Committee, which Canedo leads—it consists of administrators, faculty and student leaders—to analyze and tackle student hunger. The group’s priority was emergency relief.

Besides the food pantry, another outcome was the creation of the Food Assistance Program, which supplies an average of $300 per semester for each qualifying student to eat at on-campus dining facilities or local restaurants during academic breaks or emergencies. In the first two years since UC Berkeley’s financial aid office launched the program in fall 2013, nearly 400 students have applied.

“I don’t want to have debt I’ll never be able to pay off or take years to pay off.”

Only around half of those, however, received aid. Many who didn’t were ruled ineligible because they hadn’t exhausted all of their financial aid options, according to associate financial aid director Silvia Marquez. Eligibility for the food program is contingent on students taking all grants and all loans the federal government offers in their packages (but not work study or Direct PLUS loans for parents).

The requirement to take on more loans discourages some students, such as Vasquez, from applying for the Food Assistance Program. “I wouldn’t want to take out a loan, so I wouldn’t apply for [the program],” he says. “I don’t want to have debt I’ll never be able to pay off or take years to pay off.”

Marquez says the UC system has always required that students pay a portion of costs, including taking loans if needed, and the program is meant to be a short-term solution. “We make funding available to assist students with the entire cost of attendance, and there is a self-help expectation. The key to borrowing is financial literacy: creating reasonable budgets and borrowing just enough to meet your needs. We want to take that approach and work holistically with students,” she says.

“A lot of students think they shouldn’t need to take out a loan to eat or live,” says Vice Chancellor Le Grande. “Everyone wants free money, but we’re limited in how much we can give out. The [Food Assistance Program] is not to be in place of your regular financial aid packaging.”

On the line at the Alameda County Food Bank

This spring—supported by a $75,000 grant from UC President Janet Napolitano’s two-year-old Global Food Initiative—Berkeley’s program expanded to include graduate students and those who weren’t eligible for financial aid, including some undocumented students and higher-income students with no parental support.

To further meet emergency needs, the food pantry has begun offering monthly clinics to help students apply for state food assistance, known as CalFresh. Full-time students who are eligible for work study and anticipate working, or those who work any job at least 20 hours a week can receive up to $194 a month in food stamps; those with dependents can get more. At the clinics, staff from the Alameda County Community Food Bank have helped more than 80 students submit applications.

Briana Starks, who graduated from UC Berkeley in 2014, and her husband, who is graduating this semester, relied on $550 monthly from CalFresh to help support them and their three children while they were in school. Now a counselor at the Student Parent Center, Starks sees the program’s limitations. “It’s a pretty modest sum that students get. Alameda County is also one of the most overburdened in the state. It can take months to enroll in the program, documentation gets lost all the time, and students are cut off,” she observes. Students who have certain drug-related felony convictions or are undocumented immigrants aren’t eligible.

And there’s another issue. “Enrolling in these programs takes a lot of time that could be better spent studying. And these programs still come with a stigma,” she says. “I’m glad the resource is there, but it’s not what I would consider ideal. It feels like we’re sending students out to different agencies to get their basic needs covered.”

In the past year, campus efforts have expanded from focusing on emergency aid to improved nutrition and education. One example is Harvest Days, which bring 20 to 30 students a month to volunteer at the UC Gill Tract Community Farm in Albany. “Students learn more about food movements, farming and harvesting. They’re welcome to take food with them, and what they don’t take gets donated to student parents and the food pantry,” Canedo says.

Gardening at the Gill Tract; photo by Jocelyn Hsu

Last spring, using another $75,000 grant from the UC Global Food Initiative, the Nutritional Sciences and Toxicology department launched a new course called “Cooking Healthy on a Budget,” which will be renamed “Personal Food Security and Wellness.” Initially 25 students signed up, and Canedo expects the class to accommodate up to 36 in the future. Course instructors also hold monthly workshops for up to 18 students who aren’t in the class on topics such as “Stretching the Protein Dollar” and “Quick Cooking,” plus two drop-in hours per week at the food pantry.

“Many students report that even if they had money to buy groceries, they didn’t know how to cook or meal prep, or about nutrition and wellness and adapting it to a student budget,” Canedo says.

Also last spring, a new English course on grant-writing taught 11 students to compose grant applications to help sustain the campus food pantry, and a new spring break course brought students to food banks and nonprofits to learn from practitioners.

Canedo says that as he has traveled the country and spoken at national conferences on hunger and higher education, he’s consistently been told that UC is the only university system to be investing this much and coordinating among campuses. He also says that Berkeley is one of the few universities in the country with a food assistance program that provides grants, not loans—and that to his knowledge, it’s the only one that allows students who aren’t eligible for financial aid but have short-term needs to apply for supplemental food assistance.

So have Berkeley’s initiatives solved the issue of campus hunger and malnutrition? “Not at all,” Canedo acknowledges. “We’re still deepening our understanding of the problem and strategizing. It’s not just about having these emergency spaces. It’s about evolving our campus to become a food secure university. We need to be proactive.”

Next year, he says, the Food Security Committee will focus on getting the word out about existing resources— and expanding education on cooking skills, wellness and personal finance. Another goal is to simply make sure programs survive. Already there is an online link for people to donate directly to the food bank. The UC Global Food Initiative recently committed to renewing its funding for Berkeley’s initiatives for another two years, according to Canedo. He says that will be enough time for the university to come up with new, alternative funding sources.

As co-chair of the Global Food Initiative’s food access and security committee, Canedo is also working to make the issue a priority across all UC campuses. In July, the group will present results of a year-long survey that studied students’ access to food and nutrition at all UC campuses. They will also highlight the best models that campuses are using to address the problem.

Le Grande has raised the issue of student hunger with the California Student Aid Commission, a state agency that oversees financial aid programs at state colleges and universities—urging officials to look beyond tuition coverage in order to make education truly affordable. “There’s not any one thing that’s going to solve the problem,” he says. “It’s education, changing behavior and resources.”

Share this article