O.C. Colleges and Universities Add Food Pantries to Fight Food Insecurity

Orange Coast College pantry; Photograph courtesy of Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County

Officially launched in September 2017, Second Harvest’s college pantry program works with campuses in an effort to give all students access to free, fresh food. There are no income qualifications, so any enrolled student may participate. The nonprofit stocks nine college pantries throughout Orange County, and is actively adding to that list—a partnership with Chapman University was slated to begin in August.

“It’s something we had been thinking about for a long time,” says Ellie Nedry, director of programs and services for Second Harvest, on the launch of the program. Though it was known anecdotally that students needed these kinds of services, it wasn’t until two reports were released in 2016 by the University of California and California State University system schools that the food bank had the hard data and proof needed to create the program.

“For the UC study, they reported that two in five of their students reported being food insecure. And then for the Cal State system, it was one in four,” Nedry says. “If a student is hungry, they’re not getting the nutrients they need, and then that’s taking away from their ability to succeed in their classes.”

The list of participating colleges and universities in the county includes Chapman University, Coastline College, Cypress College, Fullerton College, Golden West College, NOCE Anaheim, Orange Coast College, Santiago Canyon College, UC Irvine, and Vanguard University.

Chapman had been stocking its own pantry—funded through donations—for the past few years before contacting Second Harvest. “Our enrollment is growing, and the number of students utilizing the pantry is growing,” says Annessa Garcia, resident director at Chapman. “One person shopping for the pantry just wasn’t adequate, and we needed more help. That’s where we came across Second Harvest.”

The pantries generally start small, perhaps in converted closet spaces, but those at UC Irvine and Orange Coast College have grown to become beautiful, large converted classrooms with refrigeration and freezer space containing fresh produce, eggs, milk, and frozen meats. Though not every pantry is the same, most contain items such as canned goods, yogurt, pre-packaged salads, pasta, cereal, and some toiletries. Students are welcome to grab what they need, with few limitations.

“I believe, in the past more so, there was that stigma that if you go to Chapman then you should be able to afford food,” Garcia says. “Within the past year, we have definitely brought more awareness about food insecurity on campus. It’s not necessarily that the students don’t have money for food, it’s just the pantry is more supplemental to them.” She says the pantry will be open regardless of whether classes resume on campus or online.

Photograph by Adobe Stock

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, 3,973 students were served monthly at nine campuses, and each student visited the pantry an average of 2.75 times per month. Since the pandemic hit, six of the locations have remained open with modifications, including drive-through distributions. The need varies dramatically based on whether students have moved out of dorms; there have been increases as high as 537 percent and declines of up to 72 percent. For the closed schools, Second Harvest is still discussing how best to provide support and guidance to their students.

Serene Flores is a recent graduate of Vanguard University, where the food pantry was implemented last year. She used the program in her senior year.

“I didn’t have that many funds, and tuition costs kept rising,” Flores says. She was able to continue using the pantry this summer after graduation, which was especially useful since quarantine required cooking at home more regularly.

“I think it was definitely a helpful transition into being more independent because it taught me a lot about being OK to ask for help and that there’s people out there willing to help in these crazy transitions,” she says. “I think as long as people aren’t ashamed asking for help, it’s a really good opportunity that they shouldn’t miss.”

Second Harvest is working with each school’s administration to destigmatize the idea of using a college pantry by placing them right in the middle of campus, rather than hidden in a corner. The idea is to make them central places for students to comfortably visit any time for their basic needs.

“The numbers have come out about how many people have applied for unemployment and how the economy is looking; so we’re anticipating the numbers at our college pantries going up as well,” Nedry says. “We see this as a really vital resource going forward, especially for college students who are already more food insecure than the general population. We’re thankful that we already have this program in place to be able to provide those resources, and are looking forward to figuring out how to scale those to meet the growing need.”

Photograph by Adobe Stock

Participating College Pantries in Orange County

1. Chapman University

2. Coastline College

3. Cypress College

4. Fullerton College

5. Golden West College

6. NOCE Anaheim

7. Orange Coast College

8. Santiago Canyon College

9. UC Irvine

10. Vanguard University

Photograph by Adobe Stock

Students served

per month

average visits per student per month

Food Insecure students
(According to reports released in 2016)

University of California system
2 in 5

California State University system
1 in 4

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