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Hidden Hunger: Some Students are Scrimping, Skipping Meals to Afford a Cal Degree

November 13, 2013
by Katherine Seligman
Photo of mother and child next to boxes of fruit

If there is a food desert in Berkeley, it is not the blocks surrounding campus. Walk in any direction at lunchtime and you see a rush of students headed out for pizza, burgers, noodles, organic salads and caramel lattes. What you might not see are the students who can’t afford lunch.

While it could be said that all college students are hungry—and can eat unlimited quantities of anything—these often-invisible UC Berkeley students worry that they’ll have little choice but to skip meals to save money. They could be trying to forget about lunch altogether, or attending a campus event just to load up on free snacks, or visiting the Bear Pantry—a free food bank operated by student volunteers who know what it’s like to run out of cash at the end of the month.

“There are the weeks we just don’t have enough money to buy food,” says Alicia Hintzen, visiting the pantry at University Village one fall morning with her 19- month-old son, who patiently waited in his stroller. “We just have to figure it out.”

Hintzen browsed through boxes of donated heirloom tomatoes, zucchini and organic apples set up outside one of the student apartments northwest of campus, selecting what she needed. No matter how bruised or close to expiration dates, the rest would get picked up by other students trying to stretch their budgets.

“It helps, but I just wish it was more,” says Hintzen, a senior majoring in urban studies. “Rent here is expensive and my family is not local.”

Making her son go without lunch is not an option. But many students confronting expensive rent, books and other living expenses, are skimping on their own meals. In a university-conducted 2012 survey of undergraduates, 23 percent reported that they skipped meals to save money at least somewhat often. And 5 percent did it very often.

“In some ways Berkeley is a victim of its own success,” says Fabrizio Mejia, executive director and an academic counselor at the Educational Opportunity Program. “We reach out to low income students. Thirty to thirty-five percent of our students are on Pell grants, which is the best indicator of low-income status.’’ As a result, he says, there are more students who “fall into food security issues.”  Financial aid is generous, but when students tote up the cost of living, it can be daunting.

And often the food that is affordable—cheap, fast food—isn’t healthy. The lack of nutrition is one more source of stress for those who are struggling to fit in, study for tests and get to class on time. Mejia and other counselors meet individually with students, but some are reluctant to bring up how often they run out of money. Counselors steer them to discretionary grants or other options, such as CalFresh, the state’s food stamp program, if appropriate. (The state does not track the number of students on food stamps.)

In the university’s last survey of such need, more than a third of undergraduates reported they were concerned or very concerned about paying for college—hardly a surprise given the escalating cost of a UC education. Although 68 percent of Berkeley’s undergraduates got financial aid in the 2011-12 survey period, 40 percent took out loans and carried an average debt of $17,964. And they did what they could to cut corners: 18 percent requested a reevaluation of their financial aid, 75 percent bought fewer or used books or read them on reserve in the library, and 22 percent took jobs for the first time. None of those measures were enough for the 2 percent who reported leaving Cal for financial reasons.

And the burden is particularly heavy for veterans, undocumented students, those from low-income families and/or who support children. At least 350 undergraduate students here this year are also parents.

“Berkeley is so demanding and so rigorous, says Ginelle Perez, program director at Student Parent Programs and Services, which helps student parents find financial aid, child care and academic support. “To work and study and have kids, it’s really hard.”


The Bear Pantry—founded several years ago by a student parent, and currently focused on assisting student parents—this year has been displaced from the student union by construction work. The University, which has collected funds for the pantry through student fees, has signaled its intent to bring it back to campus, with dedicated space, when construction wraps up.

“If there is a space, people will donate,” says Mejia.

For now, on Tuesday mornings, Sam Miyazaki gets up extra early to drive her three children to school and then navigates the chilly back room at Whole Foods. She and other volunteers load fruit, vegetables and juice bottles into boxes and transport them back to her apartment. Pictures of the produce are posted online so students know what’s left—usually nothing but compost-worthy mush by the end of the day. Miyazaki later rushes to class, probably, she said, still smelling like old tomatoes.

Other volunteers regularly pick up donations from Noah’s Bagels, Acme Bakery and the Cheese Board. But it’s the fresh produce that parents crave. They stop by all day, whenever they have free time, with book bags, strollers, baby carriers and older kids in hand.

“It comes from Whole Foods, which we couldn’t afford,” said Kelly Soderlund, a freelance writer and journalism student at San Francisco State University whose partner is an undergraduate at UC Berkeley. Together, they care for their 17-month-old son. “It’s a huge struggle,” she says. “Most of us are on public assistance. There is no other way to provide for your family. Student grants only give you nine months of help. You have to figure out how to spread it out.”

Volunteer coordinator Tomie Lenear, who lives nearby with his wife and two kids, observes that student parents often find it humiliating to take free food. But the pantry has created a community of students who help each other out, cook dinners together, trade childcare and keep each other upbeat.

“We got in here with the same high standards and then have to go to a food bank,” he says.  “We have small children who don’t understand (student aid programs) or midterms—and they are hungry and we need to feed them.”

Tuition and fees this year for in-state students are $12,864. The university estimates, based on surveys, that off-campus housing and utilities will cost $7,458 this school year, books and supplies $1,226 and personal expenses $1,746.  Those without a meal plan will need an estimated $2,626, or about $300 a month for food—less than $220 a month if stretched over an entire year.

“It is so woefully inadequate,” insists Leah Burrell, a senior majoring in art who pays a “rock bottom” $712 a month for her small Oakland apartment. The average one-bedroom in Berkeley rents for $1,822 and students double, triple and quadruple up to save money. Others commute from Fairfield or Salinas.

Burrell was in tears one Friday as she contemplated how she was going to manage buying food over the weekend with only $20 left in her bank account. “This is not something a lot of people talk about,” says Burrell, who interns as a peer mentor. “They talk about their love life before they’ll talk about what’s in their checkbook. They have a hard time. It’s embarrassing.”

At 58, Burrell is outside the typical age range of Berkeley students, but well within the typical experience:  She earned her spot through hard work. She had dreamed of going to Berkeley since she first visited during a model UN conference when she was a high school student in San Rafael. But she struggled with learning differences and didn’t have the grades or resources. She got married and divorced and supported her daughter.

Then, at 48, she enrolled in community college and found herself excelling in all her classes. Maybe after all, she told herself, she was smart enough to try for Berkeley. Why not?

“I cried when I got in,” she recalls.

Her arrival on campus created a family legacy: Her daughter recently graduated and is now off to graduate school. Burrell, who wants a master’s in counseling, hopes to follow her. And she’s grateful and happy to be at Berkeley. Scholarships cover her tuition and fees. But more than once she’s had to ask for emergency grants. The rest she borrows.  And right now—with debt that will top $50,000 when she graduates, the challenge of getting to school in a 22-year-old car, and health complications including diabetes—she just wants to make sure she can finish the next term. 

At the last minute, Burrell received a paycheck from the nonprofit she works for part-time, providing a reprieve from worrying how she could afford groceries. But she doesn’t know what will happen next time.

“I’m at the best university,” she says, “and I’m losing my ability to take advantage of all that’s here. Why do I have to grovel for food?”


Lenear, a member of a student advisory committee reporting to the vice chancellor of student affairs, wants options beyond the Bear Pantry—perhaps opening campus cafeterias to needy students once a week, or offering meal plans to those who don’t live in dorms. He and other student parents are running the Berkeley Half Marathon on Nov. 24 to raise awareness of the obstacles they face.

And Berkeley being Berkeley—where students have pushed for solutions to social problems locally and around the world—others are at work on crafting solutions. 

Max Dougherty, a senior majoring in computer science, is reaching out independently through social media to find a way for students to donate unused meal points to those who need them. He draws his inspiration in part from research and outreach at UCLA, which has an Economic Crisis Response Team to aid homeless students. “There are times when I’ve been short on money and I’ve popped around from event to event,” Dougherty acknowledges. “If you want college students to come, you put out food.” He’s also had friends live on his couch, and suspects other there are other students who sleep, when they can, in public buildings on campus.

“The numbers are hard to pin down,” he says. “I know that many students who are homeless might not say they are and would avoid the subject altogether. The first step is to recognize these students and find out what their needs are.”

Those wishing to donate to the Bear Pantry food bank for student parents can click on the “Make a Gift” button on the right side of this site:

For information about student parents running the Berkeley Half Marathon to draw attention to their needs, visit

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