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By Jeanine Erikat

The Student Outreach and Retention Center (SOAR) celebrated the grand opening of UCI’s first food pantry on Monday, October 5th. The opening marked the arduous efforts of ASUCI, the Muslim Student Union (MSU), SOAR and Global Food Initiative Fellows.

The Grand Opening of the SOAR Food Pantry was a symbolic event signifying the start of a long process towards eradicating food security and beginning the discourse within our community to address hunger,” said Huda Herwees, an MSU representative.

According to ASUCI’s Administrative Affairs Vice President, Alexander Fung, the food pantry project began last year in 2014, under the Global Food Initiative.

“The food pantry was in response to an exponential increase in a number of students who are food insecure, not just in the UC’s, but nationwide too,” said Fung.  “Food insecurity is also being experienced in many countries, not just in developing countries, but developed ones too, like the United States and Canada.”

With the problem of food insecurity becoming more apparent, representatives from  UC Office of the President under the UC Office of the President Campus Food Access and Security Subcommittee launched an initiative by giving a number of grants to encourage projects by students to address this issue of food security, at the campus level.

Fung’s project, which he worked on with Global Food Initiative Fellows Jennifer Lima and Jessica Figueroa, was to initiate a food pantry.

Initially, this idea was not supported by the administration. In 2012, a mobile food pantry was made available for graduate students, but several graduate students were taking the food and exchanging it back for alcohol from the food suppliers. As a result, Fung faced several obstacles.

Around this time, several members of UCI’s MSU, who were unaware of Fung’s efforts, were also working hard to make the food pantry a reality.

“We wanted to create a service that offers immediate emergency resources for students who don’t have access to healthy and affordable food on campus,” said Herwees.

The MSU presented their initiative at a conference held in early Jan. by MSA West, an umbrella institution for Muslim Student Associations across college campuses all over California. After a ten-page proposal for their community service project, interviews, and a presentation, MSA West awarded UCI’s MSU with a $2500 grant for the food pantry.

In Jan. 2015, MSU, SOAR, and Global Food Initiative Fellows, all decided to collaborate and work together to make this project a reality at UCI and to more importantly, bring attention to the issue of food security experienced by students everyday.

“No student should ever have to worry about where their next meal is coming from and I think that was the driving force behind this project, we [members of MSU, SOAR, and Global Food Initiative Fellows] never want to see any of our peers or classmates going to sleep hungry,” said Herwees. “Unfortunately, hunger is often normalized within our college communities.”

Fung, Lima, and Figueroa received a $2500 grant through the Global Food Initiative Fellows grant in Nov. 2014, but even combined with the $2500 grant MSU received, there were not enough funds to start a food pantry immediately.

Dr. Graciela Fernandez, who advised the Global Food Initiatives Fellows last year and is currently serving as the director of SOAR, suggested that the best place for a food pantry would be at SOAR.

Additionally, the UC Office of the President provided $75,000 funds for the pantry. $61,000 has already been used to hire a full time staff member, Andrea Gutierrez, at the SOAR center to not only operate the food pantry, but also to advise students and help move this food initiative security forward.

For future sustainability, these organizations are working hard to figure out funding, donations, and the next step necessary to ensure the longevity of the food pantry at UCI.

At the moment, the organizations are focusing on hosting the California Higher Education Food Security Summit at UC Irvine this year. The summit will create discussion centered on food security and empowering students to raise awareness, alongside the implementation of  effective practices and strategies to eliminate food security not only from campus life, but surrounding communities, affected all the same.  Herwees commented that, “This will be a great opportunity for students to learn about what efforts are already being made and how they, as students and community members, can contribute to existing projects or how to execute their own.”  

All of us [MSU, SOAR, ASUCI, and Global Food Initiative] acknowledged there are many ways to address food security,” said Fung. “A food pantry is not the only way to go, but it is a stepping stone in raising awareness about food security, getting the ball rolling on starting a conversation, and prove to administration that there are hungry students out there.”

As of Oct. 5, 14 students have used the food pantry and the organizations expect the numbers to rise steadily.

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