Filling the gap and bellies
Pantry, programs address problem affecting nearly half the student body: food insecurity
Before enrolling at Chico State, Brenda Ramos rarely gave a second thought to eating food from a charitable pantry. Her divorced parents did not always have the resources to fill the kitchen cupboards for her, her twin sister and older brother. Food banks filled the gap.
“I didn’t think too much about it,” Ramos recalled. “At first I was kind of embarrassed about it, but year after year, [as] we faced that difficulty … I thought, ‘Oh, it’s free food!’ To us, it was normal.”
Ramos left Vacaville in fall 2013. Her sister also came to Chico State. Once here, she still faced challenges getting three full meals a day—even when living in a dorm and on a campus food plan, since the plan she could afford provided only lunch and dinner.
A friend, who’d become her boyfriend, told her about the Hungry Wildcat Food Pantry, which, coincidentally, started the year Ramos arrived. The pantry—located in a Kendall Hall office and overseen by Kathleen Maroney, assistant to the associate vice president of student affairs—gives foodstuffs for free to students in Ramos’ predicament.
The problem strikes approximately 8,000 Chico State students, or 46 percent of the student body. That finding comes from a recent study conducted by the campus’ Center for Healthy Communities and College of Natural Sciences. The study report links food insecurity with “lower levels of cognitive function, higher levels of mental distress and, consequently … lower levels of academic performance.”
Ramos followed her friend’s advice and visited the pantry, in Kendall 110. She returned repeatedly and made such strong personal connections that she now works as a student assistant in the Division of Student Affairs, as does her twin. Ramos’ duties include work for the pantry, though she’s an ambassador of her own accord.
“A lot of people need assistance, and it’s fine,” said Ramos, 21, who is on track to graduate next year.
Maroney, who founded the pantry, was motivated by an individual like Ramos. She’d fielded a call from a faculty member during the 2011-12 academic year about a student who came to class hungry and couldn’t pay attention. The professor, whose identity she can’t recall, inquired: “Where’s the pantry on campus?”
Maroney didn’t have an answer. At first she thought it was because she’d just arrived and didn’t have the information, but she discovered the campus had no food bank; students got referred to places elsewhere in the community such as the Jesus Center.
She noticed in the Student Affairs suite an empty office with a book shelf, which she began filling with food items she’d collect at various division events. Soon students—athletes, fraternities and sororities—launched food drives.
“The inspiration for all [of] us is helping students be successful,” Maroney said.
Joe Picard felt that passion, too. As Chico State’s marketing director for Regional and Continuing Education, he felt he could bring his background to bear to help the pantry expand.
During high school in Los Angeles, he volunteered in a Skid Row soup kitchen. At UC Davis, he studied agriculture and spent a lot of time at the student farm. Picard melded those experiences into a means through which students can obtain fresh greens for free.
In February 2015, the pantry began distributing paper vouchers called Veggie Bucks that students exchange for boxes of produce grown by the Organic Vegetable Project on 3 acres at the University Farm. Picard put down the first $20; donations allowed the program to grow; and, this spring, a $20,100 sustainability grant from Associated Students allowed the pantry to broaden the Veggie Bucks concept into a debit-card system at specified campus eateries.
In addition, the pantry serves as a registration point for CalFresh, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, through which the state directs federal funds to low-income people needing help affording food. The Center for Healthy Communities provides assistance.
“If a student were to do it by themselves, it might take them two hours,” Maroney said, “and these interns get the students through it in 20 minutes.”
A.S. is rolling out its own program to combat student hunger: an alert to leftovers. The student union runs a catering service that often winds up with extra food after events. The caterers send out a text notification to subscribers, who then have the next half-hour or so to glean.
“Intended or not intended, we throw away food, because food can only stay out for two hours,” said Thang Ho, IT director for A.S. Now, once the expiration time hits, “a lot of the food is gone.”
That success has prompted the organization to increase sign-ups from 500 in the pilot group to campus-wide in the fall.
The Hungry Wildcat Food Pantry is expanding as well. By fall semester, it will move to a larger space in Siskiyou Hall.
It’s currently the single largest customer of the OVP, which holds a market day on campus during the school year. Wholesale purchases from Chico Natural Foods and pantry-rate bulk buys from the North State Food Bank keep the shelves stocked when donations fall short of demand. The Chico Police Department is collecting nonperishable items for KRCR Channel 7’s Stuff the Bus food drive (8 a.m.-4 p.m. weekdays through May 19 at 1460 Humboldt Road.)
From her vantage point at the produce table, OVP market Manager Kim Narol sees the need. Most every Wednesday from 10-1, when she’s set up outside the BMU, a dozen students cash in Veggie Bucks for produce. Others purchase low-cost veggies and greens.
“There’s a ton of students that are suffering from food insecurity and are unable to buy fresh produce,” said Narol, a graduate student in agricultural education.
All told, the pantry has distributed 19 tons of food to 2,000 students.
“I get so choked up,” Maroney said. “It has been so enriching personally to do this and provide this service. They are so grateful … it’s hard to be in class when you’re hungry and worried about where your next meal is coming from.”