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FRESH Continues to Work Against Food Insecurity

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By Eliza Partika

  The FRESH Basic Needs Hub will be opening its doors for the first time at Lot 5 on Sept. 27. FRESH’s Open House will introduce students to the space and provide them with information about FRESH’s resources and advocacy efforts.

    FRESH began in 2015 as the Student Steering Committee, a student-initiated project aiming to address students’ basic nutritional needs at UCI by running a fee referendum to fund and expand UCI’s food pantry. The referendum passed in spring 2016, and the Food Pantry’s original space a few shelves at the SOAR Center was able to expand. After securing a new location, the Committee refocused on advocacy work. This change in focus led them to change their name to the Student Basic Needs Steering Committee, as they began working to support students’ other needs in addition to food access.

   “Now that we’ve made so much progress in food security, our strategy is  to start looking at what needs to be done for housing insecurity, advocating with ASUCI for change in policy and building more affordable housing in Irvine and looking at resources we can offer for emergency short term,” said Andrea Gutierrez, coordinator of the FRESH Basic Needs Hub.

   She and the Basic Needs Hub will be working with ASUCI to urge UCI Housing to create more rooms for emergency beds and to make vouchers available that will allow housing-insecure students to stay at nearby hotels for the night.

   FRESH’s Basic Needs Committee will be meeting in the Fall with ASUCI’s new Housing Commission as well as their Food Commission where the group will decide their advocacy goals for the coming year. Gutierrez said that the meetings will be “a space for everyone working on basic needs issues to be on the same page.”

   Gutierrez coordinated the California Higher Education Food Summit in winter 2017, something she considered an instrumental step in inspiring both students and staff who were passionate about food insecurity.

“Seeing so many students and staff that were so passionate about making sure students didn’t have to experience hunger in college gave energy to student leaders. I credit organizing the summit here to bringing awareness to our campus,” Gutierrez said.

   Currently, FRESH offers several options for aid to those experiencing food insecurity. The Emergency Meal Swipes program, which has an online application,   allows students to apply for additional meal swipes valid at UCI dining halls. To qualify for Emergency Meal Swipes, students must submit background information including a copy of their financial aid award letter and a monthly expense sheet so FRESH can see where most of their money is going. Students can also make appointments on the FRESH website to fill out the CalFresh federal food aid application with nearby Second Harvest Food Bank. To apply for CalFresh, students must be enrolled full- or half-time at the university, be under the income limit, and  meet one of four other requirements: work more than 20 hours a week, accept work-study jobs, have a parent qualify them or if they must  withdraw from the University for a quarter.

 There are no requirements to access the resources provided at the food bank; shopping in the pantry portion of the Basic Needs Hub functions on an honor system. Students need only their student ID to swipe into the pantry and can choose their items based on a color-coded system which will tell students how much of each item they can take. The honor system is in place to ensure all students in need of resources receive them.

“We wanted to make sure this would be easy as possible and we wanted to get rid of the stigma surrounding food pantries. It’s a service available for students in need experiencing financial difficulties. It’s not just free food,” said Gutierrez. “If you have the means to buy food at the dining halls or at Zot n Go, then by all means, but this is for the students who don’t have those means.”

  In addition to these resources, FRESH will be offering year-round workshops focused on nutritional health and cooking, as well as sponsoring Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week in the fall.

  FRESH is open for donations year-round during business hours, as long as the food is in good condition. They are currently accepting volunteers on their Facebook page.

  Student staff members who have been working at FRESH since its inception have enjoyed their time there.

  “There were some issues with my housing that I couldn’t solve, and I went a little bit of time without being able to access food. None of this was around back then, and being able to be a part of these things that are available now is really rewarding,” said a fifth year student on staff.  Second-year Selma Hassane, who has volunteered with the food pantry since her first year,  said,  “It’s challenging always having to come up with new ideas and trying to find ways we can best accommodate students, but overall it’s very rewarding.”

Noor Katabi, an intern, is proud at the progress FRESH has made over just a few years.

  “It’s great to see all the ways and possibilities we can get all these basic food needs and toiletries to students at their location,” Katabi said. “It’s great to see how much we’ve accomplished in the time I was here.”