UC Berkeley senior and Public Health major Rachel Chung is food insecure. From a low-income family, she pays for her own education and works 15 to 20 hours a week at her work study job. Often, eating nutritional food — and sometimes eating food at all — is not a priority.
“As someone who needs to save money and pays for rent and tuition … I often try to cut the budget for food or don’t even spend money on it at all and skip meals and stuff because I’m worried that I don’t have enough money,” Chung said. “I don’t want to have to rack up bills, because I know that I have like a 32k debt hanging off my head once I get out of school.”
For Chung, there’s often a tradeoff between spending money on food and other basic needs. She finds it difficult to purchase affordable food in Berkeley and often resorts to supermarket discounted food sections.
“On one hand I could be spending money on food, but on the other hand I could be spending it on tuition especially because I pay for myself and I work a lot to be able to afford things,” she said. “Sometimes [the discounted food section’s] vegetables or fruits are bruised or moldy but I often buy from that section because it’s so much cheaper and you get more for your buck.”
Chung’s experience isn’t isolated. According to the UC Student Food Access and Security study released in July, an alarming 42 percent of UC students statewide reported experiencing food insecurity — which includes lower food consumption, poor diet quality and irregular eating patterns. Although many studies on food insecurity have been conducted nationwide, the UC system report is one of the first to focus on colleges and universities.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, food insecurity affects one in seven households nationally. Comparatively, the UC system’s level of insecurity is extremely high. According to the UC study, the problem seems to be due not only to a lack of funds, but also a lack of nutritional education, financial illiteracy, and limited time to prepare healthy meals.
I often try to cut the budget for food or don’t even spend money on it at all and skip meals and stuff because I’m worried that I don’t have enough money… I don’t want to have to rack up bills, because I know that I have like a 32k debt hanging off my head once I get out of school.”
UC Berkeley offers a variety of programs to help support students who lack easy access to food, including the Food Assistance Program, which helps low-income students by giving them meal points, CalFresh clinics — which give food stamps to students with work-study offers — and the UC Berkeley Food Pantry.
Carolyn Hsieh, third year Nutritional Sciences—Dietetics major and Operations Coordinator for the food pantry, is directly involved with the fight against food insecurity on a daily basis. Hsieh and other volunteers staff the pantry, making it possible to give students who need it another food source.
“The food pantry is definitely meant to be an emergency food relief resource,” Hsieh said. “The whole point is to alleviate the problem of food insecurity on campus, mainly to serve students who are food insecure, who find it hard to budget for food in addition to the crazy high rental costs in Berkeley, or find themselves having to skip meals to save money, anyone that doesn’t really have consistent access to food.”
The pantry is funded largely by the university itself and partners with many groups on campus, but also receives many private donations from community members. It uses this money to purchase the wide variety of foods it provides — canned products, cereal, fresh produce, Acme bread, Noah’s Bagels, and more. This food is primarily purchased through Cal Dining’s food distributor, United Natural Foods, Inc., and as of the end of last semester, also the Alameda County Community Food Bank, which offers significantly discounted prices and free produce.
According to Hsieh, the pantry is visited by a wide range of people, as anyone with a UC Berkeley ID is allowed to stop by and take up to five items per visit for free, all of which are approved by the campus dietitian.
Hsieh sees a lot of student parents who have difficulty supporting their family and funding their education, but also students who are in a momentary rut. She added that many students say that they wish they had known about the food pantry sooner. In fact, Chung only discovered the pantry last semester, when she started volunteering at it.
“Nobody really advertises the food pantry; I don’t even know how I found out about it … but if I had known about it, I would have felt so much less stress [as] an incoming freshman,” Chung said.
The Food Pantry serves a constantly increasing number of students; in fall 2016, it saw 2580 visits and served 1280 unique individuals. In February alone, the Food Pantry saw 1429 visits, a number vastly larger than the approximately 300 the prior February. Hsieh posits that this increase is due to the food pantry’s move in October — from Stiles Hall to the significantly more accessible MLK Student Union. Despite this increase, Hsieh believes that this resource is one that the student population as a whole is mostly unaware of.
“A lot of students that would benefit from this resource are not aware that we exist, and I’ve definitely experienced that even sitting in the pantry,” Hsieh said. “Right now, unless you’re specifically looking for the food pantry and you’ve already heard about it, it’s really hard to just happen upon it online.”
The Food Pantry is still striving to increase awareness, incorporating the topic of food insecurity into New Student Orientation, planning pop-up pantries on Northside, and building its first website. Hsieh remains optimistic for the future, but cautious about the reality of institutional change.
“It’s not just us [working against food insecurity], we do have a lot of support on campus. We’re getting there little by little,” Hsieh said. “It’s not something that can be changed overnight; there are definitely a lot of regulations … we’re doing our best to try to get the messaging out there as soon as possible so that students feel supported and know that there’s all these resources that can help them thrive in college.”
UC Berkeley has put together the the Basic Needs Security Committee, of which Hsieh is a student leader, to tackle food insecurity and other related issues. The committee is interdisciplinary and made up of students, professional staff, faculty, and administrator leadership. It works with the nutrition sciences department, Tang center, and other groups on campus.
The committee strives to make the campus more knowledgeable about issues like food insecurity, nutrition, and basic needs as a whole, and aware of the resources that already exist.
To Chung, the conversation and openness that could come from awareness are key to alleviating the problem over time.
“When everyone is involved and able to feel comfortable with each other, we can start having this dialogue,” Chung said. “Improvement happens gradually, but I think conversation should be happening now and continuously.”