By Diego Huaman
Since first opening Oct. 5, the Student Outreach and Retention Center (SOAR) Food Pantry has successfully served over 600 students till date with plans of a potential expansion in order to further aid the student body.
The SOAR Food Pantry is a student-initiated service providing students lacking food access and security with free non-perishable food items and additional resources to address long term needs.
In a survey conducted at UCI, 51% of respondents reported having low to very low food security levels. Current survey data shows 25% of students at each UC facing food insecurity.
For the most part, students in the past could only depend on Campus Social Workers to help them access resources. However, due to the alarming increase of students struggling with food security, the UC system has enlisted a particular workgroup to focus solely on food access & security this year.
The UC Office of the President has awarded each campus a one-year grant to operate and expand food pantries and other services, including hiring full-time Food Access & Security Coordinators across the UCs.
“I have had the opportunity to talk to several students who are very grateful for the emergency help the food pantry provides,” said Andrea Gutierrez, UCI Food Access and Security Coordinator. “I’ve also seen students empowered to share their own personal stories with food insecurity when they understand these issues affect many students and community members and that they are not alone and should not be embarrassed to ask for help.”
Last year, across the UC system 14.8% of students reportedly skipped meals to save money often or very often — a total of 8094 students. The same survey conducted at UCI showed 16% or 1357 students facing the same issue.
“With my busy schedule and involvements, I am always in a constant rush and with high tuition costs, I can’t always afford to buy food. That’s where the food pantry has helped me the most,” said Jerry Rivas, a second-year public health policy major who frequents the Pantry.
In an effort to promote the Pantry, Malcolm Morales, one of the two SOAR Marketing Coordinators, said the team is working on creating a basic awareness of the Pantry’s services.
“Considering the food pantry is still very new, we’ve mostly been working on developing the basics such as the logos as well as the flier distributed throughout campus,” Morales said.
In order to expand the use of the food pantry, the SOAR center relies on referrals from campus partners such as the Campus Social Workers, Student Support Services, the Transfer Center, the Counseling Center, and other staff members and academic counselors.
The Pantry also launched the Food Pantry Volunteer Program earlier this quarter. About 30 students committed to being part of the regular volunteer program. Amongst other tasks, volunteers help during hours of operation and also with the inventory and organizing the pantry.
“Being able to contribute to resolve food insecurity on campus has been truly rewarding, especially seeing how much students benefit from this service,” said Pantry Volunteer Joseph Cachapero.
Next quarter, Pantry Volunteers will be tabling on Ring Road, making quick presentations at campus organization meetings and widely distributing marketing materials.
The Pantry is now seeking to expand its food offerings to include fresh fruits and vegetables in addition to the non-perishable food items currently offered.
“We want to make sure students have access to nutritionally adequate food,” said Gutierrez.
In addition, the program is working to create a series of workshops related to nutrition, cooking skills, and financial literacy to equip students with skills that will allow them to better manage their diet, time, and finances.
Student government leaders are exploring the idea of running a Student Fee Referendum campaign to guarantee funding for Food Access & Security efforts in the years to come. Simultaneously, the Statewide Food Access & Security Workgroup in the UC Global Food Initiative is currently exploring long term alternatives to ensure food security for all students in the University of California.