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Food Pantry Supports Students

Employee helps a student with Cal Fresh

January 11, 2019 - 11:25 AM

Walk into the shared office of biology professors Beta Meyer and Carola Wright and you will quickly notice the soup cans. Lots of soup cans. Stacked on top of file cabinets and in bookcases, sharing space with crackers and granola bars. A sticky note on the front of one of the bookshelves invites students to help themselves.

“Kids will pop in to the office and ask, ‘Can I have a snack? I’m hungry,’ ” Meyer said. “Sometimes I’ve had students say to me, ‘Oh thank God you brought snacks.’ I’ve also had students tell me they didn’t have any food that day and they will even ask me while in labs.”

Food insecurity – defined as limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods – often results from ballooning college costs, inadequate financial aid packages and growing enrollment among low-income students, according to researchers from Temple University and the Wisconsin HOPE Lab.

A 2016 Wisconsin HOPE Lab survey of 33,000 students at 70 community colleges found that 56% of students experienced low or very low food insecurity. Sociology professor Sonya Masl said she knows all too well how being hungry affects academic performance. “They fall asleep in my class, they aren’t engaged and they don’t do well on their exams,” said Masl, who also provides snacks during her classes.

With $68,000 from the California Community College Chancellor’s Office, Mt. SAC’s Homelessness and Basic Resources Committee established a hunger-free campus initiative this year called “Mountie Fresh.” One element is the Mountie Fresh Food Pantry, designed to serve the 30 percent of students who are struggling to get enough to eat each day.

“A food pantry like this addresses a nationwide problem, and this is Mt. SAC’s effort to deal with it right here on our campus,” said Koji Uesugi, dean of Student Services and co-chair of the committee.

In the spring, Mt. SAC partnered up with Sowing Seeds for Life, a community nonprofit based in La Verne, and debuted a soft launch of the Mountie Fresh Food Pantry. Organizers anticipated serving about 250 students; however, the need was so substantial that an additional 50 bags were made for distribution on the spot.

Since identifying this extensive need, the Mountie Fresh Food Pantry is now held the second Tuesday of every month, with the goal of serving up to 600 students. Organizers also set aside 50 bags for those going to school in the evenings.

On a recent Mountie Fresh Food Pantry day, Sowing Seeds for Life’s truck rolled on to campus filled full with non-perishables and paper goods. Up to 75 volunteers from across campus arrived as early as 8:30 a.m. to unload 12,000 tons of items, unpack boxes, spread the items out on long tables in the college’s Student Life Center and pack bright green canvas bags as if on an assembly line.

“There is a definite need on campus and I really want to support our students,” said Barbara Carrillo, a Student Services program specialist and committee member. “They are our priority.”

Food items, donated by the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, vary on a monthly basis: September’s bag held a can opener, a full-sized box of cereal, cookies, pasta noodles, mashed potatoes, a large bag of chips and applesauce. October’s bag was slightly different, offering items such as boxed tofu, dried cherries and plums, taco shells, macaroni and cheese, peanut butter, chicken broth and sweet potatoes. Another table featured heavier items such as gallons of grape juice and green tea, sparkling water and sesame oil. For future food pantries, the Homelessness and Basic Resources Committee is looking into different entities that would be able to contribute fresh fruit and vegetables.

Located in the heart of campus, the food pantry looks like any other college event and doesn’t draw much attention to those waiting in line. Uesugi said students will often be embarrassed or ashamed of their situation.

“One initial concern was that there are a lot of negative stigmas attached to food pantries as a whole and we need to make sure the students feel comfortable,” he said. “The area looks nice and open. We encourage students and tell them, ‘If you want food, just come.’ ”

A first-year student, who declined to be identified, learned about the October food pantry through a professor. “Since I’ve turned 18, they have cut my welfare in half, so after attending this food pantry I’m able to give some additional food to my mom, little sister, and now, my cousins since we have been caring for them,” the student said.

During the food pantries, there was no shortage of those eager to help. “Something that is just as phenomenal as providing food to students is the level of volunteers” said Audrey Yamagata-Noji, vice president of Student Services. “It says something about the giving nature of the Mt. SAC community.”

Paul Kurama, a member of the Public Safety Club, decided to spend a few hours at the food pantry for the first time in October. “I think it’s important to give back,” said Kurama. “I consider myself very fortunate but I realize there are others who are not. It’s always good to give a helping hand to those who are struggling a little.”

-- Meghan Wishner contributed to this article.