In the days leading up to the August test run of a new mobile food pantry on campus, Sara Gamez hoped the word of the new service would reach students.
Gamez, associate director for Student Support & Equity Programs, wondered whether students would show up. Do they read their emails in the summer?
It turns out they did. Volunteers prepared 400 bags of non-perishable food items and toiletries for about 200 students. All of the prepared bags were taken, she said.
“We had to close off the line when we ran out,” Gamez said. “We were very excited that we were able to support students, but we had mixed feelings. On the one hand, everything went and the resources were used, but we also realized that if everything went, there’s a real need.”
In 2015, CSU Chancellor Timothy P. White commissioned a study to look at food insecurity and homelessness at the system’s 23 campuses. Phase one of the study found that up to 24 percent of students are insecure about access to food. Between 8 percent and 12 percent of students don’t have stable living environments.
The study, which was expanded in 2016, also found that 11 campuses offer programs for students grappling with food insecurity.
While Gamez was working on her doctorate at Cal State Long Beach, she served as a research assistant on the initial CSU study and started asking how Cal Poly Pomona could help its students.
In May 2016, Cal Poly Pomona took its first step to address food insecurity when a committee with representatives from across campus was formed. The Food & Housing Security Committee, chaired by Gamez, decided to start with gathering data about the most recent incoming freshman class and learned that a high percentage were coming from high schools where about 75 percent to 80 percent of students were receiving free and reduced lunch. Committee members did site visits to other CSU campuses with food pantry programs.
The campus forged a partnership in June with Sowing Seeds for Life, a La Verne-based nonprofit to establish a monthly mobile food pantry program. The university also works with the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, and most recently with Feeding America to get a CalFresh outreach specialist to come to campus. CalFresh runs the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for low-income residents.
On Sept. 26, the official launch of the monthly mobile food pantry, volunteers loaded shopping bags for about 400 students with canned vegetables, peanut butter, toilet paper and can openers. At one of the canopy-covered tables, students picked up donated Cal Poly Pomona T-shirts. On the far end of the farmers market-type display, work wear from the Career Center Clothes Closet was arranged on racks for students to take.
Juliette Wander, a junior majoring in political science who volunteered at kickoff event, said she enjoys giving her time to a worthy cause.
“I thought that this really is an amazing idea,” she said of the mobile food pantry. “It’s hard to study if you’re hungry. There is definitely a need for it.”
Fran Robertson, director of development for Sowing Seeds for Life, said the nonprofit had a mobile food pantry in the works before connecting with Cal Poly Pomona. Robertson had met Elke Azpeitia, coordinator of the university’s Veterans Resource Center, through a grant program and the pair had discussed what Sowing Seeds offered veterans. So when the idea of a mobile pantry on campus came up, Azpeitia referred the nonprofit to the food insecurity committee.
The reception of students at the mobile food pantry test run in August demonstrated the importance of the services, she said.
“It was beyond my wildest dreams,” Robertson said. “It was wonderful. They were genuinely happy about us being there.”
Cheryl Love, a Career Center career counselor, suggested expanding the resources offered to students. It seemed a natural fit to provide professional clothing to students who are struggling with food needs because there is a link, said Love, who volunteers with a food bank off campus.
“If someone is having trouble finding enough food to eat or a roof over their heads, they are probably also struggling with clothing,” she said.
Plans for a permanent pantry on campus are moving forward, said Farris Hamza, Associated Students Inc. president. Last year, ASI voted in favor of a resolution calling for the establishment of Poly Pantry in the Bronco Student Center. Once the location and partnerships with local organizations are formalized, the goal is to open the pantry by spring quarter, Hamza said.
“One of our focuses is student well-being,” he said. “How can students function at a university if they don’t have basic resources? Establishing a food pantry will begin to address one of the larger issues on campus.”
Gamez said while a food pantry doesn’t necessarily address underlying issues long term, it is a start. The hope is to provide support for students beyond the immediate.
“We want to develop a strategic program that doesn’t just meet the students’ needs in that moment,” she said. “We are looking at long-term solutions.”