More than just a Box of Cereal

According to a study by UC Berkeley professor Sara Goldrick-Rab, approximately 42% of UC students report food insecurity. 

By Haley Chaney

When Jenna Oliva* was only five, she and her two older siblings were brought into America by their mom on visiting visas from El Salvador, and they have remained ever since. The empty promises from friends and family that inspired them to come, have continued to make the legalities of becoming citizens nearly impossible throughout Oliva’s life. Without citizenship, they struggled financially. Growing up, her family would go to a local church to get food donations. “I don’t remember the name of the church,” she shrugs with a sheepish smile, “…just that we went there to get food.”

Oliva, now a second-year Physical Sciences undeclared major, is one of approximately 11,400 UC Irvine undergraduates affected by food insecurity. Two years ago, students Alex Fong, Jennifer Lema, and Jessica Figueroa applied for a grant to begin the Food Pantry through the Student Outreach and Retention Center, also called SOAR, when they noticed a trend of very low food insecurity among their peers on campus. The program quickly became a success and recently announced its expansion to a larger space in Lot 5 and a new emergency meal swipe program, where students with proven financial need will be given 10 free meal swipes a quarter for on-campus meal plans. Currently, the Pantry is a closet inside the SOAR Center, stocked with donated and discounted food from Second Harvest Food Bank of OC and private food drives. 

According to a study by UC Berkeley professor Sara Goldrick-Rab, approximately 42% of UC students report low food insecurity, defined as a reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet, or very low food insecurity, which is defined by the USDA as multiple instances of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake. This issue has gained recognition quickly over the past few years. In March, UC President Janet Napolitano reallocated $75,000 in funds to each campus to combat the rising issue. Additionally, The College and University Food Bank Alliance, or CUFBA, recently reached its 400th member, and its Food Pantries can be found in colleges across the nation.  

Though Oliva receives federal and state financial aid, she still struggles to make ends meet. Her minimum wage job at Jack-in-the-Box wasn’t enough cover the cost of housing last year, and she was only saved when her mom won $1000 from a $20 lottery ticket. Now, Oliva helps her family by not only alleviating her own need for food, but also sending some of her pick from the food pantry back to them.

 “Sometimes I bring the beans back to my mom, ‘cause she really likes the beans here,” she says, pulling out two blue cans of Goya black beans from her backpack, “They’re worth three points.” She sits at the square of tables outside the food pantry, studying a calculus lecture pulled up on her laptop with a half-eaten granola bar from the Pantry on her right. Without time to maintain schoolwork and a job this quarter, Olivia tries to make it to the pantry every week. “It really helps my family out,” she says.

SOAR Center Director Graciela Fernandez explains, “When students come to the SOAR Center, there’s no questions asked. If students find that they are food insecure and identify for that day, that week, that month-whether they forgot the money and need a granola bar or their financial aid money ran out and they need groceries for the week-we want to meet that need.”

Fernandez has worked with the Food Pantry since its conception. Her office, directly across the hall from the Pantry, is almost as bright and colorful as the pantry itself, with a Tiffany blue tissue box and hot pink hand sanitizer on the end of her desk. The office phone rings almost constantly, creating harmonic accompaniment in the serene hallway.  

Fernandez explains, “We know this is just a band aid and there’s other needs that we haven’t met.”  

A line of students sit in the beige chairs lining the wall of the SOAR Center common room gossiping about friends. A young woman carrying a grocery bag steps out of the closet in the corner, passing the sign that exclaims “FOOD PANTRY” in colorful bubble letters, to swipe her ID at the table where a red number dispenser reading “POR FAVOR TOME SU NUMERO” sits. The students along the wall simultaneously stand and shift to the right one seat without a moment’s pause in their conversation, while the next woman at the end steps into the closet.

Students get one visit and 15 points per week to “spend.” Items range from 1-point granola bars to 3-point microwaveable pastas. Simple and quick to use, students choose whatever items they want from the pantry adding up to 15 points, or 16 if they bring their own bag, and then swipe their student ID before leaving. A volunteer supervises the process from outside, double-checking the amount of points being used in each visit.

Many of the Food Pantry’s volunteers began as patrons, such as Vietnamese international student Thai Bihn Pham, a fifth-year Biological Sciences major. “Sometimes [it’s a] challenge buying nutritional food,” she explains, “so I save money on pasta here to buy nutrition food [from] other places.”  

SOAR Administrative Assistant Shronda Davis-Maxie also got her start with the program by attending the Food Pantry’s Open house last October, in need of food. She was soon offered a job and has worked there ever since.

The SOAR Center’s Dreamer’s Research Office, also known as the Dreamer’s program, is the other half of its student retention program and works closely with the Food Pantry, since students of an ethnic minority are more likely to encounter food insecurity than those of Caucasian background. The UC system explicitly states its standards of conduct through its “Principles in Support of the Undocumented Members of the UC Community.” This states that “The university is committed to creating an environment in which all admitted students can successfully matriculate and graduate.” However, studies show a significant association with food insecurity and low GPA, leaving undocumented students at a higher risk of failing or dropping out of higher education.

Professor Goldrick-Rab addresses this issue, “Financial aid says parents give money to students, but [the] reality is [that] students give money to parents.” This is a common theme among students at the food pantry as well.

Kelly, a fourth-year chemistry major who didn’t want to disclose her last name, peered over her thick, square-rimmed glasses to explain that she comes every week because “my family needs the extra help.” She consistently brings food back to her parents and two siblings in Garden Grove.

Fernandez recalls her favorite instance at the pantry; a little boy of two, now a regular, came in for the first time with his mom. She was able to disguise her hunger, as many adults do, but her toddler was too young to understand this social expectation, and complained about his hunger, as any kid would. Finally, the pair’s number was called, and the boy was able to pick whatever he wanted from the pantry. He strutted out beaming, hugging his very own box of cereal.  

Fernandez laughs, “I started crying! It’s just a box of cereal, but for him it’s breakfast for the whole week.”  

*Name changed to protect privacy of the individual

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