Talks of a food pantry have been floating around campus since 2011, when a group of graduate students briefly opened a pantry at Verano Housing after feeling the effects of food insecurity, or the condition of having limited and inconsistent access to nutritious meals. However, because resources were limited, the pantry was unsustainable and had to be closed, and the idea of a food pantry was tabled indefinitely.
In Spring of 2014, however, conversations surrounding a food pantry began resurfacing when students were campaigning to keep the Student Outreach and Retention (SOAR) Center during the Spring Elections. One of the campaign's promises was to open a food pantry at SOAR if the referendum passed. Coincidentally, during the same year, conversations about food insecurity at the UC Office of the President. The student-regent at the time, Sadia, Saifuddin, advocated for a food security subcommittee to be part of the larger Global Food Initiative (GFI), a large project that utilizes research, outreach, and policy to solve some of the world's pressing hunger problems. For the 2014-2015 school year, GFI created a fellowship program to address hunger solutions, and three students from UCI (Alexander Fung, Jennifer Lima, and Jessica Figueroa) were awarded one of that year's fellowships for the UCI campus.
To fulfill SOAR's promise of opening a food pantry, the three fellows focused their fellowship project on the possibility of establishing a food pantry on campus. Through their research, and their collaboration with the Muslim Student Union (who was able to secure a $2500 grant to open a pantry on campus from a third-party organization), the fellows decided that the best course of action was to hold a food security awareness week to make the UCI community aware of the prevalence and effects of food insecurity on campus. During that week, the fellows created a petition asking the establishment of a food pantry on campus and were able to collect 1000 signatures to deliver to UCI's administration. At the same time, UC President Janel Napolitano approved a grand proposal that provided a one-time allocation of $75,000 for each of the 9 UC campuses to address food insecurity. UCI leadership and the newly established Food Access and Security Workgroup, after these successive events, approved the establishment of a food pantry and continued raising awareness about food insecurity, ASUCI (UCI's student government) established the Food Security Commission though Vice President of Admin Affairs.
Launch Year: 2015-2016 Academic Year
With the $75,000 funding from GFI and the $2500 grant-money that the Muslim Student Union (MSU) acquired, SOAR was poised to begin tackling food insecurity at the beginning of the 15-16 academic year. As such, through the combined efforts of SOAR, the ASUCI Food Security Commission, and dozens of student leaders and volunteers, three main achievements were accomplished during this academic year:
1) Food Pantry establishment & hiring of a full-time coordinator in Fall 2015
On October 5th, 2015, the SOAR Food Pantry was officially established and opened with a grand opening ceremony. The pantry served non-perishable food items that were purchased from the OC Food Bank, such as pasta, mashed potatoes, granola bars, cereals, etc.⠀
A few days before the opening of the pantry, SOAR hired Andrea Gutierrez, a UCI Alumna, to be a full-time Food Security & Access Coordinator to run the pantry, develop programming, and come up with solutions to tackled food insecurity on the UCI campus.
The Food Pantry was visited often during its first year of opening. It served 2,949 students total, and had 655 unique student visits from both undergraduate and graduate students.
2) UCI hosted the 2nd Annual California Higher Education Food Summit (CHEFS) in Winter of 2016
The annual conference, which brought in 230 attendees from across the UC, Cal State, and COmmunity College systems, helped UCI further understand food insecurity issues and see what techniques other campuses were using to address this problem on their own campuses.
3) Passing of the Food Pantry Initiative in Spring 2016
Students successfully campaigned for and passed the "Food Pantry Initiative," a student fee referendum that allocates $3 quarterly student fees from every undergraduate student. This fee would provide $150,000, after return to financial aid, for the next ten years to expand food security efforts at UCI. The referendum passed with 85.80% approval.
Other Notable Accomplishments
- The Food Pantry Volunteer Program was launched -- a program that lets students volunteer to run, restock, and organize the pantry while also learning about the larger issue of food insecurity.
- Nutrition Workshops -- taught students on how to eat and shop healthy on a budget, as well as the nutritious value of food items.
- Sponsored Cooking Classes at the ARC -- popular, free classes taught by UCI's chef at the Anteater Recreation Center, that taught students how to make meals out of the items at the pantry
- Began offering toiletries at the pantry
- Confidential appointments were held with the Food Access & Security Coordinator for students who were struggling to access food
- Simple Cooking with Heart classes -- a collaborative cooking demo project between the Food Pantry and the American Heart Association (AHA) chapter on campus where students learned how to make heart-healthy recipes provided by the AHA.
Despite our many accomplishments, we ran into several bumps along the road on the journey to addressing food insecurity on this campus. Some of these challenges included:
The size of the pantry
- The two bookshelves that made up the food pantry made it difficult to constantly have food stocked, as it would empty out quickly
The pantry's location
- The pantry was located inside the MPR of the SOAR Center, an area that is commonly used for student workshops, a study space and student org meetings, thus limiting the service hours the pantry could be open
- The inconvenience of the location also limited the amount of workshops and events we could hold as many events take place in the SOAR's MPR and not all of them can be dedicated to food security efforts.
The inability to distribute fresh produce
- Due to limited infrastructure, funding and resources, the pantry was only able to offer non-perishable foods.
However, towards the end of the year, food security efforts received more funds for the 2016-2017 academic year. In addition to the annual $150,000 SOAR would be receiving from the Food Pantry Initiative (student fees), UC President Janet Napolitano approved a grant, submitted by the GFI Food Access & Security subcommittee, that would allocate an additional two-year allocation of $150,000 annually for each of the 9 campuses to tackle food insecurity.
Continued Expansion: 2016-2017 Academic Year
With the increased funding, some of the goals for the 16-17 school year included tackling the various challenges we faced last year, as well as amping the amount of services and programming we offered. We were also able to hire two student staff with the increased funding. Our three main accomplishments for the year included:
1) The securement of a bigger space
- Through many negotiations and passionate advocacy, Andrea Gutierrez, the Food Access & Security Coordinator, was able to secure a portion of the Lot 5 trailers to serve as the new space for the pantry and other programming.
- A student contest for the name of the space was held, and the space was names the FRESH Basic Needs Hub based on the winning submission.
- A student contest was also held to determine the logo of the FRESH Hub.
- FRESH officially opened its doors in Summer 2017.
2) Monthly Free Farmers Markets
- To truly tackle food insecurity and ensure that students had access to nutritiously-dense food, SOAR hosted a monthly Free Farmers Market to distribute fresh food on campus in collaboration with the Second Harvest Food Bank.
- Seven farmers markets were held throughout the year and 2,666 unique students received food, with a total of 4,682 total attendees.
3) Launching of the Smart Eaters Life Skills Series
- A collaboration between SOAR and the UCI Center for Student Wellness & Health Promotion
- Workshops addressed several factors that lead to food insecurity and taught students basic life skills, such as nutrition, meal planning, grocery shopping, eating well on a budget, financial basics, cooking, and kitchen safety.
- The students received lots of giveaways and free lunch during the workshops, and a total of 198 students participated in the series.
The year, because of the increased funds and increased student familiarity with the pantry, the food pantry was visited almost three times as much as its first year in operation, with a total of 9,954 frequent visits, and 2,898 of those being unique visits.
Other Notable Accomplishments
- Hosted the first Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week in collaboration with ASUCI, UCI Students Affairs, and UCI public Affairs
- The Student Basic Needs Steering Committee was convened -- a committee comprised of student leaders involved in the food security movements, ASUCI members, and student org representatives that made sure the referendum money (which comes out of student fees) was being utilized in the way students envisioned it would be.
- Launched the Emergency Meal Swipes Program -- a program that students can apply to if they need immediate food assistance. Eligible students can apply through a formal application process and those who qualify are rewarded ten meal swipes per quarter for the dining commons.
- Established a partnership with UCI Dining to launch a Swipe Out Hunger Program -- a nationally recognized, student-led program that allows students to donate their unused meal swipes to other students in need.
- These donated swipes are additional swipes that will be added to the swipes available through the Emergency Meals Swipes Program.
Looking Forward: 2017-2018
As we reflect on our accomplishments in the last two years, and look forward towards the future, we are excited about all the FRESH Hub has to offer. With the bigger space, we are able to offer a larger variety and larger quantity of food so that we can serve more students, distribute fresh fruits and vegetables through our refrigeration systems, have office space from the expanded professional and student staff team, and have an area to increase the volume of programming offered. In out space, one of our focuses for the year is to incorporate sustainability measures into our programs and services, including recyclable tote bags that students can use to "shop" for food and the utilization of compostable utensils and spoons. As we shift from food security to basic needs security, our goals encompass total student well-being, including addressing the reality of housing insecurity for our students. We plan on creating more collaborations and partnerships with on-campus and off-campus partners to widen our scope of services as we refine the role and purpose of FRESH on the UCI campus. Through student utilization and feedback, we hope to take FRESH on campus, one of the first-ever student basic needs center in the country, to heights we could only imagine two years ago, when were initially advocating for the establishment of a food pantry.