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As a first-generation student at Cal Poly, now-graduate student Oscar Velasco never knew about the food resources, such as the Cal Poly Food Pantry, available to him as an undergraduate struggling with food insecurity.
“I just felt that eating Top Ramen was a rite of passage, and that wasn’t the case at all,” Velasco said. “That would have been so much of a burden lifted off of me.”
At Cal Poly, 27% of students experience food insecurity, according to a report from 2018.
“That bothered me so much,” ASI President Tess Loarie, who worked with the Cal Poly Basic Needs Initiative before she was elected, said. “I was like, ‘This is infuriating. Why are we not doing more about it?’”
In an attempt to combat this, ASI approved the Campus Health and Wellbeing Food Pantry program in March 2020 which provided the Food Pantry with $35,000 for each school year until 2023–24. The Food Pantry, located below the Health Center, allows students to take as much food as they need as often as they want.
Due to the funding, the Food Pantry can stay open on weekdays from 8:30 a.m.–5 p.m. instead of the previously shorter hours of 10 a.m.–2 p.m, according to Velasco, a social sciences student who worked in the Food Pantry during the 2020-21 school year.
“ASI came to us and they proposed that idea and we loved it,” Velasco said. “It was just me running the Food Pantry at that time.”
The funding also allowed them to hire two student assistants, who work Monday through Friday for up to 20 hours per week. They are responsible for greeting visitors, stocking the pantry and helping coordinate volunteers.
One of the student assistants is biochemistry sophomore Sharon Shin, who volunteered at the Food Pantry as a freshman. Shin experienced food insecurity as a Cal Poly student and said it is much more prevalent than many people think and affects almost every aspect of students’ lives.
“As college students, we require proper and adequate fuel for our bodies and individuals experiencing food insecurity are unable to provide this for themselves,” Shin said. “When suffering from food insecurity, our quality of life decreases.”
Before the ASI funding, the Food Pantry was completely funded by donations and grants and there were “no long-term funds dedicated to supporting the Food Pantry,” according to Cal Poly Director of Wellbeing Kari Mansager.
“When people are happy and they want to donate, you get money, and if they don’t, you don’t get money,” Loarie said. “That’s really problematic for people who rely on this as a resource to be constant.”
Mansager praised the funding’s benefits on the Food Pantry.
“Having this additional assistance has been instrumental in adequately serving food pantry visitors,” Mansager said. “It has been great to be able to use the ASI funds to hire students who are helping us to be the best resource we possibly can for students.”
The pantry orders anywhere from 1,000-3,000 pounds of food weekly from the San Luis Obispo Food Bank, which is an increase from monthly orders compared to previous school years, according to Basic Needs Coordinator Kari Howell.
“We do our best to get what students want and have established ‘staples’ for the Food Pantry,” Howell said. “This includes pasta, sauce, produce and soups.”
The pantry usually receives at least two weekly donations from Greek life students, the Community Garden and parents and supporters, according to Howell. The Real Food Collaborative, a Cal Poly student organization, also donates Cal Poly-grown produce to the pantry weekly.
Howell is a first-generation low-income college graduate and grew up receiving food service benefits.
“I know what my collegiate experience could have been like had my university had a food pantry,” Howell said. “I’m proud to work for this program.”
During the 2020–21 school year, Velasco said roughly 1,000 students visited the Food Pantry in total.
“Most classes and services were virtual but the Food Pantry was one of the few programs that offered in-person services for students,” Velasco said.
Since the start of the 2021 fall quarter, however, Howell said up to 400 students visit the Food Pantry each day.
“We have been seeing unprecedented numbers of students accessing our food pantry resources, so the increased funding could not have come at a better time,” Mansager said. “At the beginning of the quarter, we were needing to spend almost $1,000 per week to keep the pantry stocked. Without this additional funding, that would not have been a sustainable amount for us to be spending based on what we take in in donations alone.”
Earth and soil science sophomore Lilliana Ruiz said she had used the Food Pantry a few times during the fall quarter.
“I’ve had nothing but a good experience there,” Ruiz said. “Everyone is really friendly and the process is super easy. When I do go, it’s something I look forward to.”
Ruiz grew up as a low-income student and relies on scholarships and grants to pay her college fees.
“I’m grateful for the Food Pantry and those resources on campus because they allow students like me who are sometimes tight on cash … to have a resource on campus that’s easy to access,” Ruiz said.
She added that she believes Cal Poly should be doing more to promote the Food Pantry, as stigmas surrounding food insecurity are still prevalent.
“[Stigmas] definitely make it harder for students who can benefit from that resource to go and access it because of the feeling of judgment or embarrassment,” Ruiz said.
Velasco said he thinks there should be more advocacy about food insecurity including educating students on financial literacy and connecting them with programs like CalFresh.
“With the pandemic, students are more destigmatizing food insecurity, but it’s also been the new normal,” Velasco said. “More students have fewer resources and fewer financial outlets so they’re using whatever they can to get by.”
“[For] students who are low-income or just need extra help finding free, healthy food, I want them to know that there’s no shame in getting that help,” Ruiz said. “It’s a resource that’s there for us to use. You shouldn’t feel embarrassed or nervous to go.”
You can donate to the Cal Poly Food Pantry through their page on the Cal Poly Basic Needs website.