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UC Berkeley struggles with a student hunger crisis

Sara Harrison
Students browse the shelves at the UC Berkeley Food Pantry. 39 percent of undergraduates in the UC system are considered food insecure.

At UC Berkeley rising tuition and a lack of affordable housing have created a student hunger crisis. Now, the University is working with faculty and staff to try and meet students most basic needs.When I go down to the basement of the student union at UC Berkeley, I find what looks like a boutique grocery store.  As I browse shelves full of pasta, cereal, and soy milk, a farmer pours fresh green beans into a bin. But this isn’t some fancy East Bay co-op. It’s UC Berkeley’s student food pantry, where food insecure students, can find healthy food free of charge.

Even though the pantry just opened for the day, the room is already packed with students quietly browsing the aisles. Students are allowed to visit twice a month. Everything is free although there are a few items, like pasta, that are so popular, students are limited to one package per visit..

The pantry estimates they serve about 4700 individual students every year.

Today, one of those students is Melanie Soto, a junior transfer.

“I just recently learned about the food pantry,” she said. “I’m glad it’s a resource for students because I’m supporting myself. My parents aren’t supporting me.”

Melanie grew up near Yucaipa in Southern California and she’s the first in her family to go to a four year school. She’s signed up to work on campus and she’s got another job at a Target nearby.

“I really need the money to support myself but I need more time to study because the curriculum is so intense,” she said.

Melanie knew the Bay Area was expensive, but rents still surprised her. Her shared bedroom costs $1500.

She said that’s about what a four bedroom apartment back home in Southern California would cost.

Melanie is one of over 100 thousand of students in the UC system who are considered food insecure - meaning they can’t afford nutritious food, or have to skip meals. A 2016 survey by the University of California found that across the system, almost half of undergraduate students and a quarter of graduate students were food insecure

Ruben Canedo is the head of the UC Berkeley Basic Needs Committee, which runs the food pantry. He says that number is a lot higher than what most people would assume. “But if you know what the cost of living in the state of California,” he said, “you also wouldn’t be surprised, right?”

Canedo points out that in-state tuition at the UCs has tripled since 1998. And with housing costs across California are rising, it’s getting harder and harder for those low-income students to afford everything.

“Upwards of 40 percent on students are coming from low income backgrounds which is substantially higher than comparable 4 year research institutions across the country,” he said. “When we have over 40 percent of students coming from low income backgrounds, it’s to no surprise that across the UC system, 44 percent of undergraduates are experiencing food insecurity.”

So in 2014, Canedo and the University started the Basic Needs Committee.

The Committee works with students to help them figure out solutions to housing, mental health, and food security. If a student is coming to the pantry every month, the Basic Needs Committee will reach out to see if they need extra support. Last year, they helped over 1300 students enroll in CalFresh, California’s food assistance program.

Canedo says food insecurity can affect students socially, physically, and academically: “When a student is both food and housing secure, they perform, on average, .3 GPA points higher than students that are experiencing insecurity. And that’s a huge difference.”

Since it’s a university, of course there’s a class to help out hungry students, too. The Basic Needs Committee works with Jazmine Rodriguez-Jordan, a dietician and nutritionist, to run a wellness and cooking class.

“The first cooking class that we did we had we learned how to make actual meals with just a microwave,” she told me. It seems weird, but the menu sounds tasty.

“We made chicken piccata, we made a lemon spicy broccoli side dish with frozen broccoli,” she said. They even made carrots and mashed potatoes.

The course is open to all students, but the curriculum targets anyone who is food insecure. Rodriguez-Jordan says college students sometimes need more than food access. So each week, students meet for a lecture and then they get into the kitchen for some hands on experience.

On the day I visit, the 18 students bustle around the kitchen, washing dishes and gathering ingredients. Today’s lesson is on batch cooking. Some groups are making lasagna, others are testing out what Jordan has named an “easy turkey skillet” that looks like a stir-fry with tomatoes, onion and zucchini. At the end, they all get together for a communal meal, which is a perk for student Kate Medina.

“We eat and then whatevers left we get to take home,” she explained. “So two meals in one I guess. It’s pretty cool.”

So far, Rodriguez-Jordan says the class seems to be a big success.

“I for one, personally can observe the changes from when students begin this course to when students end this course, feeling a lot more confident in their ability to make healthier choices, to put food together, cook them, be proud of what they eat,” she said.

Next semester, the class will expand to add another section. But Rodriguez-Jordan acknowledges that she and the Basic Needs Committee still have a long way to go to reach every student that needs them. Some students can’t take the cooking class because they are busy working part-time jobs. Others simply haven’t heard the class exists.

Next year, the University will create a special space with resources for food and housing insecure students. The new Basic Needs Center will have spaces for students to cook, hang out, and meet with counselors from CalFresh or other social service providers.

But these efforts also require a shift in perspective. Ruben Canedo says that sometimes we think of the starving college student, living off instant noodles and pizza, as an essential part of the college experience.

“We need to unlearn that,” said Canedo. “We need to say that doesn’t need to be, not just the college experience but the human experience. Economic food and housing insecurity should not be part of the human experience period.”

Canedo hopes the center can be a haven that helps all students feel like they belong at Cal.

You can contribute to the Berkeley Food Pantry and other food banks around the Bay Area.

Crosscurrents Housing & Homelessness