Writer’s Note: During a pandemic, one of the lessons we learn is to value the hard work and selfless efforts of essential workers. They are truly heroic to sacrifice themselves during a time when we need them the most. Thank you to all Essential Workers at the FRESH Hub Basic Needs Center at the University of California, Irvine and Tanaka Farms!
An unexpected global health crisis is more than a simple inconvenience of stay-at-home orders and social distancing. A health pandemic is a time of confusion, grief, instability, and fear as we face the unknown. One challenge that continues to impact college students is food insecurity.
While always a source of concern for college students, access to food has become more apparent as a privilege. Essential services like the FRESH Basic Needs Hub at the University of California, Irvine continue to serve students despite the school’s rapid transition to remote learning.
In their new produce voucher program, Farm-to-FRESH, students receive weekly vouchers of $30 to buy healthy produce of their choice from Tanaka Farm’s Produce Market Stand, which has been turned into a drive-thru to accommodate for Center for Disease Control guidelines
Andrea Gutierrez, director of the FRESH Hub, created this new collaboration with Tanaka Farms as a way to give students access to fresh produce in a safer way than going to a grocery store during the current health crisis.
Due to new safety precautions, the FRESH Hub’s free food pantry program has completely changed from in-person service to pre-packaged boxes, which mainly consist of non-perishable items.
“That was a really hard decision for us to make because for years we’ve strived to increase access to fresh food. Having to decide to backtrack to only non-perishables was really heartbreaking and it was also difficult because we know that students rely on the accessibility to fresh food from us. It was a decision we had to make for the safety of our own team and the safety of our clients,” Gutierrez says.
Although the pandemic has made it a greater challenge to the ongoing threat of food insecurity, this new program has been extremely receptive and resourceful to students currently living on and off-campus. During the first week of distribution, an astounding 80 students went to the FRESH Hub to receive their produce vouchers. Because of such a great reception, the hub’s social media page has been tagged in images of students’ produce hauls and experiments with new recipes. Most importantly, though, students are no longer hungry during a time of anxiety.
While Tanaka Farms continues to function during the state lockdown, the farm’s biggest source of revenue from their public strawberry tours and educational field trips remain disrupted by social distancing measures. Although business has significantly decreased, the new voucher program has provided relief to the essential workers at Tanaka Farms.
Gutierrez states, “With this new voucher program, there has been a major improvement for the farm business and now more workers and their families are getting these jobs. We’re helping them with business and supporting a community that is also facing employment challenges during the pandemic. It’s a win-win situation.”
While this new program is well supported through grants, it is still quite expensive. Since the unprecedented situation has caused across-the-board instability for students, the FRESH Basic Needs Hub continues to accept all new applicants for this program regardless of their financial situation.
“In times of a public health crisis, many folks are experiencing financial challenges. People are losing jobs and our students have lost their jobs. Their parents have lost jobs or been laid off. That’s one of the reasons why our BASIC Needs center was deemed an essential service; we are still allowed to come to campus and distribute to all students,” Gutierrez mentions.
Because of the current economic and health crisis, students may feel overwhelmed by major changes in their overall stability. Personal economic strain, housing concerns, and academic performance are some of the sudden challenges that now strain college students’ mental health.
Now an emergency relief program, the FRESH Basic Needs Hub is saving our students from food insecurity. While this program does require a form of transportation to Tanaka Farms, students can carpool with a friend or roommates to experience the drive-thru market stand.
Through this direct form of aid, the Hub can combat the overwhelming anxiety of food insecurity in a mutually beneficial way. Not only do students receive healthy produce, but essential workers at Tanaka Farms are getting paid for their hard work as well. And we must remember that the workers behind the masks are more than just workers, they are real people who have families to feed.
“The commitment is to continue regardless of how we may modify our process for distribution depending on the public health situation. It’s a day by day thing. We don’t know how long this situation will last, but we will always continue our commitment for the students,” Gutierrez confides.
As a result of the health pandemic, we all live day by day. While it seems currently inevitable to detach ourselves from each other, we must continue to raise awareness of the silent challenges that impact the less-fortunate members of our society. The FRESH Basic Needs Hub provides relief during the current pandemic, giving us hope and strength for whatever tomorrow brings.