The term “starving student” is such a cliché that we regard enduring some hardship while in school as almost a rite of passage. But actually, food insecurity is a severe problem found on many college campuses. Recent studies have noted that one student in five skips meals to save money.
As the largest of its kind in the UC system, the Food Pantry at UC Berkeley is poised as a remedy. On a visit there I see shelves lined with pastas, soups, granola bars, cereals, and rice. Pantry coordinator Esteban Vasquez explains that produce is stored and refrigerated up the street at the Berkeley Student Food Collective. A very busy first-generation college student, Esteban serves as the UC Berkeley Food Pantry coordinator of internal operations. The users of the pantry are not unlike Esteban: Most of them are involved on campus, have jobs, and attend classes full-time, but still require the services of the pantry. People with diverse backgrounds and stories walk through the pantry doors every day. Each student has a separate struggle and history, but all share the experience of food insecurity.
The Berkeley Food Pantry was established in 2013 to provide emergency relief for students with insufficient means for feeding themselves. Simultaneously, the first Berkeley Food Security Committee was established to find solutions to this problem.
Any UC Berkeley student, graduate or undergraduate, can utilize the pantry twice per month. On entering, they provide their IDs so pantry staff can scan them and collect anonymous data useful in improving these services. Students are allowed five items in addition to fresh produce provided by the Alameda County Food Bank. A licensed dietitian helps the pantry stock nutritious foods and also offers advice for putting together balanced meals. Berkeley’s food pantry is the first in California to order from an organic catalog to provide students with healthy food.
As an official part of the UC system, the pantry gets funding from the university. This came about in response to a UC survey, released in July 2016, reporting that one in five students skip meals to save money, as well as to the 2014 Hunger in America report, which found that one in seven people in the U.S. depend on a Feeding America facility. (One in ten of those are students.) Most financial aid packages won’t cover all living expenses, so young people prioritize paying rent and buying books over purchasing food. The pantry also works with the Financial Aid and Scholarship office to close the widening gap between what students get and what they can realistically afford in the Bay Area.
Although the pantry is a relatively new resource for students, it has risen quickly in its legitimacy, support, and impact, building awareness about the issue of food insecurity on campus while also teaching students how to make healthy food choices. The pantry partners with Cal Dining, the Berkeley Student Food Collective, the Division of Equity and Inclusion, University Village (where many students who are parents live), and UC Gill Tract Community Farm, where students can pick their own produce on Harvest Days. It is also the only campus pantry to stay open year round, rather than just at peak times such as finals or midterms. Many other college campuses in California have followed the pantry’s example and have begun addressing the issue of food insecurity while also creating campaigns that advocate for healthier eating.
Grace, a first year at Berkeley, currently works two jobs at the same time as being a full-time student. A student volunteer at the pantry, Grace also depends on the pantry for meals. A transgender individual, Grace (who prefers the pronouns they/them/their) considered dropping out of school for financial reasons in the fall of 2015 until an academic advisor mentioned the food pantry as a source of relief. For Grace, the threat of sudden poverty feels very immediate, and although their family intends to support them through college, that support may be withdrawn at any time. An Asian American whose family expects a son on his way to medical school, Grace felt the need to work two jobs, go to school, save meal points, and also use the pantry. They explained that this was their first opportunity at independence and to be their true self. This is one of many examples where family and institutional support are not enough. The pantry is a welcome resource for fresh healthy food, as well as for a sense of acceptance and community.
Recipe for Savory Oatmeal by UC Berkeley Wellness Program dietitian Kim Guess, RD.