AS/EOPS Food Closet seeks to feed the needy

Tucked away in a back office in the Extended Opportunity Programs and Services (EOPS) facility is a small food closet consisting of two bookcases filled with cans and boxes of food. The EOPS provides these boxes of food to students who are in need and enrolled in their programs.

“It has been a lifesaver for many of our students,” Debra Joseph-Locke, EOPS and CARE Supervisor said. She shares her office with the food closet and sees students coming by daily to get food. “We have maybe 20 or 30 students that come by periodically.”

The Associated Students (AS) has been working to expand EOPS’s efforts by creating a food closet that will serve the entire campus.

“Food closets are becoming the norm on community colleges and universities alike in addressing food insecurity for students,” Johnathon Hughes, AS Director of Student Assistance said. “If we do not start one soon we are going to be the exception to the rule.”

In the past year they have determined a location, where to get affordable food, and decided on who can run its daily operations. “It’s been a six to eight month process to get to this point,” Hughes said.

According to FASFA, in 2013 there were over 58,000 homeless students enrolled in U.S. colleges. A recent study released by California State University found that while 12 percent of their system’s students suffer “housing displacement” such as homelessness, 24 percent could be going hungry.

These realizations have led to a growth in concern about food insecurity among college students causing campus officials to take action.

The UC Global Food Initiative, launched in July 2014 by current president of the University of California Janet Napolitano, aims to combat world hunger while also working to ensure that UC students have food security. UC colleges were allotted $75,000 per campus to pay for short-term relief and to find long-term solutions.

In January 2015, the campus leaders of the Initiative’s Food Access and Security Subcommittee hosted the first California Higher Education Food Summit (CHEFS) to facilitate the conversation about food access and equity among college community members. This past January, Bruce Rankin, Executive Director of the Westside Food Bank in Santa Monica, attended the second annual meeting at UC Irvine.

“What struck me was the minimizing of students that are food insecure,” Rankin said. “[In the past] there was a romantic idea of being a starving student. You didn’t have to make a lot of sacrifices because everything was so cheap.”

Today it is a different story. In California, the high costs of living and increase in college tuition and fees leave many students struggling to afford healthy food.

“The reality that, just as we pay attention to elementary and high school students needing to be well nourished with reduced anxiety and better capability of functions in school, there ought to be something that’s just as much in the forefront for college students,” Rankin said. “Only now our legislation has been realizing there’s a real crisis at college campuses.”

At SMC, finding space for the five-foot tall, three-foot wide cabinet that would serve as a food closet was the biggest hurdle that Hughes faced. Luckily, the SMC Foundation offered to let them house the closet in their facility. The Westside Food Bank, which provides food for food pantries and college food closets in the area, will sell them non-perishable items for just two cents per pound. For just $100 each semester, Hughes projects that they will be able to help approximately 660 students.

In terms of how to distribute food, they plan on granting access to different groups. “Instead of the AS determining who gets food, we let the departments that help students have a day,” Hughes said. “So that way we’re not necessarily micromanaging who gets what to eat. It’s more up to the departments to figure out what’s best for them.” With this, each organization has a specific day and time to access the closet and give food to their students in need.

Another important aspect is trying to maximize use by determining how much aid to distribute to a single individual. Their recently launched food voucher program, called the FLVR Program, currently has about 160 students and is getting new applicants every day.

“I’m almost afraid to say that one cabinet is not going to be enough — that we’re probably going to have to expand this program next semester,” Hughes said.

Still needing approval to purchase the cabinet and sign a contract with the Westside Food Bank, the program isn’t expected to start until the end of the year.

“During finals week we should be able to have students walking out with bags of food,” Hughes said. “Which would be really great for the AS because we would have gone from having no food programs, to having two fully functioning food programs within the time span of one year.”