College of Science and Mathematics Dean Phil Bailey remembers the tear that fell down one student’s face when she told him she was struggling to pay rent and perform well in school.
“What [are] you eating?” Bailey asked her.
“Well, you know, I really don’t,” the student said.
After this conversation, Bailey brought up the experience at the Cal Poly president’s external advisory cabinet meeting. Immediately, a member committed himself to doing something about food insecurity on campus.
The result: Cal Poly’s meal voucher program.
Between 2015 and 2016, 998 students used meal vouchers, but there are many food insecure students who aren’t aware of the program.
“While we don’t have a true picture of the number who are actually food insecure [at Cal Poly], we have [California State University] (CSU) system]- wide data,” associate dean of students Joy Pedersen said.
At the CSU level
At the CSU level, an estimated 79 percent of food insecure students don’t know about the meal programs available to them.
According to a year-long CSU study, an estimated 24 percent of its college students were food insecure in 2015. The CSU system is the largest university system in the United States and one-in-four of its students struggle to acquire food.
At Cal Poly
Since Cal Poly’s demographics don’t exactly reflect those of the general CSU system, the number of students experiencing food insecurity may be slightly lower, according to Pedersen.
Cal Poly is currently collecting data on the number of food insecure students on campus.
There are several resources available to those who struggle with food insecurity, including:
• Cal Poly CARES grants of up to $2,000 (began in 2015)
• CalFresh Outreach Program (new program this year)
• Meal Vouchers Program
• Hunger Program
• Food Pantry
The food pantry and meal vouchers have been in place at least one or two years prior to Pedersen expanding the program in 2014, she said. Because food insecurity has gained more attention locally and nationally in the past two to three years, Cal Poly has increased efforts to raise awareness about the services available, Pedersen said.
Compared to the 2015 national food insecurity average of 13 percent, national college campus food insecurity rates hover around the 40 percent range, according to nutrition and public health professor Aydin Nazmi. With more college students facing lack of food accessibility and the financial burdens of college, students often sacrifice food and nutrition, Pedersen said.
“There’s kind of a stigma with college food insecurity,” nutrition graduate Kelly Condron said. “College students are expected to be poor and eat top ramen and not have access to food. We’re trying to decrease that stigma.”
Fighting the stigma
A CSU report explained how the normalization of eating cheap food mitigates the severity of food insecurity on campuses. While Cal Poly is still in the process of collecting data on the number of food insecure students, there are some numbers reported by Campus Health and Wellbeing that bring the issue to light.
“For example, in 2015-16, 205 students visited the pantry — 127 of them one time and 78 of them more than once. In 2016-17 so far, 370 students have used the food pantry — 141 of them more than once,” University Spokesperson Matt Lazier said in an email to Mustang News.
Within one year, the amount of one-time food pantry visitors increased 80 percent. Pedersen attributes the increase between the 2015-16 and 2016-17 years to an attempt to reduce barriers to these programs and services. There has also been an increase in word-of-mouth referrals to the food pantry and meal vouchers, she said.
Nazmi attributes the need for these programs to a larger problem.
“To have students [who] are hungry in college points to larger social and economic problems in our country, and in the higher education system,” Nazmi said.
While CalFresh makes efforts to address acute and relatively short-term needs, it’s more difficult to solve the root causes of food insecurity like wage gaps, equal opportunity, socio-economic barriers to higher education, the cost of higher education, financial aid formulations and work study availability, Nazmi said.
Nazmi serves as the principal investigator of the CalFresh outreach program. In this program, he helps students process necessary paperwork to apply for a CalFresh grant. Average amounts given to a CalFresh student range from $125 to $150 per month, he said.
Nazmi and CalFresh outreach members pre-screen students and act as a liaison between the Social Services department and Cal Poly.
According to Nazmi, the application process for a CalFresh grant takes roughly 30 days, includes a phone interview, submitting verification documents and can be completed without having to physically go to the department of Social Services.
“If students’ basic needs, like food and housing aren’t met, it’s pretty obvious that academic success will be much more difficult to achieve,” Nazmi said.
If you are a student who may be experiencing difficulties getting good food or enough food, you can stop by CalFresh drop-in hours or contact staff at (805) 399-0236 or firstname.lastname@example.org.