Cal Poly's Food Pantry offers a wide variety of packaged and canned foods, fresh produce, frozen meals, and personal hygiene products. Credit: Mustang News

Aydin Nazmi’s life revolves around food. Not only does he teach food science at Cal Poly, but he also works as a coordinator for CalFresh, a federal program that provides people with a monthly grocery stipend. Nazmi is on the front lines of fighting food insecurity.

“When you’re hungry or stressed about affording food, it is difficult to think about anything else,” Nazmi said.

Food insecurity among Cal Poly students has increased from 27% in 2018 to 39% in 2022, according to the newest Cal Poly Basic Needs Report.

The Basic Needs Report is an audit conducted by the Basic Needs Initiative, which measures levels of food and housing insecurity among students and diagnoses possible causes and measures the effectiveness of current solutions across CSU schools.

The 2022 report was published along with a separate report detailing recommendations for handling basic needs insecurities. Many of these recommendations intend to address two basic goals: making resources accessible and reducing barriers around those resources, such as stigmatization. 

Traditionally, schools have attempted to reduce dropout rates through academic means, Nazmi said. While extra tutoring services and increasing academic resources help, those resources are only as useful as long as students have the time to use them. If students have to work a job while they are in college, for instance, they have less time to utilize those studying resources. 

Professor Aydin Nazmi teaches food science at Cal Poly and works as a coordinator for CalFresh. Credit: Courtesy of Aydin Nazmi

The impetus from the CSU to start the Basic Needs Initiative was to make sure students had no barriers preventing them from completing their degrees, according to Nazmi. 

The CSU’s decision to reevaluate its strategy to tackle dropout rates coincided with a 2018 Government Accountability Office report that recommended that the government make unspent Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) money more accessible to students to keep them from dropping out, according to Nazmi. 

“I think their conclusion was that if we want students to graduate on time, be productive members of society and complete their degree, they have to be fed,” Nazmi said.  

A major factor contributing to the rise in food insecurity is the low number of Cal Poly students enrolled on CalFresh, Nazmi said. CalFresh has been proven to reduce food insecurity by 89%

In response, the Basic Needs Initiative, the Cal Poly Food Pantry, the SLO Food Bank and CalFresh at Cal Poly have all been upping their outreach efforts. 

During the 2021-2022 academic year, CalFresh at Cal Poly hired two new outreach co-managers, Liv Watts and Lucy Rodriguez. 

Only 404 students applied for CalFresh during the 2019-2020 academic year, according to the Basic Needs Report. That number increased to 912 during the 2021-2022 academic year, which represents a nearly 50% increase in applicants compared to the 2019-2020 academic year. However, the number of CalFresh applicants only accounts for 10% of Cal Poly’s food-insecure population. 

“[One] silver lining of the COVID pandemic was moving our one-to-one student support appointments to a virtual format,” Liv Watts, co-manager of CalFresh at Cal Poly outreach said. ‘We have had better turnout using Zoom for appointments, likely due to the privacy and convenience of Zoom meetings.”

The San Luis Obispo Food Bank and the Cal Poly Food Pantry have also increased their joint monthly grocery distributions that happen on Mott Lawn on the last Tuesday of every month.

Cal Poly’s Food Pantry visitations have nearly doubled from 881 in the 2020-2021 academic year to 1,790 during the 2021-2022 academic year, according to the Basic Needs Report.

Credit: Cal Poly Basic Needs Initiative Food Resources

During the 2020-2021 academic year, 196 students received groceries from the monthly grocery distribution, according to the Basic Needs Report. The first food distribution of the 2022-2023 academic year on Sept. 27 reached 310 students, according to Andrea Keisler, the director of community programs at the San Luis Obispo Food Bank.

“Our staff, volunteers, and partners make every effort to reduce the stigma that can be felt when someone reaches out for help by reducing as many barriers as possible and approaching every interaction with warmth, compassion and discretion,” Keisler said.

Nazmi said knowing nearly half of his students are food insecure has forced him to reevaluate his relationship with them.

“I think the important thing is for professors to approach students as humans first,” Nazmi said. “Realizing [as a professor that] that person is nodding off or not paying attention…[and] maybe it’s not malicious; maybe they didn’t have a proper place to sleep.”

Many Cal Poly students come from wealthy households, Nazmi said. “It’s probably more difficult to out yourself as needing a resource, as needing help, as being food insecure in an environment where many of your colleagues and peers come from high socio-economic backgrounds.”

The stigmatization of those who are food insecure is not as prevalent as it used to be, but it is not yet normalized, Nazmi said. 

“I would love to get to the point one day where you know students talk about CalFresh with each other the same way they talk about financial aid,” Nazmi said.

To learn more about CalFresh, go to https://www.getcalfresh.org/.