UC Irvine opens a sprawling pantry as increasingly more college students wrestle with starvation

Ernest Devin Rankin, a student at UC Irvine, grew up in Anaheim on one meal a day when his disabled parents, who had six children, struggled to stretch food stamps and disability payments.

By the time he got into college, he could only afford the cheapest meal plans, serving 100 meals per neighborhood. After those meals ran out, he asked friends for help or survived with $ 1 worth of fast food burgers, tacos, and burritos.

Rankin and thousands of other UC Irvine students facing similar issues received great help on Wednesday when the university opened the largest pantry in the University of California’s 10-campus system. The 1,800 square meter FRESH Basic Needs Hub houses shelves with canned and dried food, refrigerators for chilled and frozen items, toiletries and a kitchenette with mixers, a fan oven, microwave and coffee maker. It is a spacious place with areas for students to sit and talk. If they want, they can read cookbooks or take home one of 15 types of seeds – including pumpkin, spinach, and parsley – to try growing their own produce.

“It means to me that the world knows there are people fighting for students like me,” said Rankin, 18, who has a sophomore major in health policy and education.

The sprawling pantry is part of the UC Global Food Initiative, a three-year initiative to address the problem of food insecurity at home and abroad. A system-wide survey last year found that 4 in 10 students did not have a consistent source of high quality, nutritious food. The survey of 9,000 college students believed to be the country’s greatest focus on food security on campus found that nearly a third of those in need had difficulty studying because of hunger and that about a quarter between paying Had to choose food or education for spending and housing.

When the results were released last year, UC President Janet Napolitano also announced $ 3.3 million to expand the fight against malnutrition on campus. She gave each campus $ 151,000 in addition to the $ 75,000 she gave in 2015 to work on solving the problem.

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Students come into the pantry as UC Irvine opens the 1,818-square-foot Fresh Basic Needs Hub.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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UC Irvine opens the Fresh Basic Needs Hub trailer as part of the largest pantry in the University of California’s 10-campus system to satisfy growing hunger among college students.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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Students will be served food during the opening of the Fresh Needs Hub at UC Irvine. The 1,818 square meter facility offers fresh, canned and packaged products, a kitchen for cooking demonstrations and space for studying and socializing.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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UC Irvine graduate Celine Qussiny (left), Mohammed Bensufia (center), third year majoring in social policy, and Nef Rogers (right), fifth year majoring in computer science, eat Vietnamese spring rolls while UC Irvine opens a new pantry for students .

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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Malek Kudaimi (right) and Jessica Vanroo (center) serve Vietnamese spring rolls to UC Irvine students at the Fresh Basic Needs Hub.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Across the system, universities have opened pantries, arranged emergency funding, planted organic gardens and participated in “Swipe Out Hunger” programs that allow students to donate extra money for their meal plans to students in need.

At UC Irvine, students approved a $ 3 per quarter fee last year to help needy students get nutritious groceries. UC Irvine officials are using Napolitano’s funds and $ 150,000 annual revenue from the fee to set up and equip the new pantry, hire staff, and offer nutrition, cooking and financial planning classes. They work with the Orange County and Second Harvest food banks.

UC Irvine opened a pantry with non-perishable items for the first time in 2015. Last year almost 10,000 visitors were counted. There are also monthly “free farmers’ markets” with fresh products and educational workshops are held on campus.

“At UCI, we are trying to set the standard for what campuses and communities across the country should be doing,” said Thomas A. Parham, vice chancellor for student affairs, as he cut the ribbon for the new space on Wednesday.

As the students walked in, they stared at the variety of foods: rice, beans, chicken, tuna, vegetables, peanut butter, soups, parcels of vegetable tikka masala, dried Korean noodles, and tortilla chips.

Baskets filled with produce – watermelons, potatoes, apples, and tomatoes – attracted oohs and aahs.

“Oh, potatoes! I can make curly fries! “said Anamaria Cuevas, 18, a newcomer to Chino Hills. She filmed a video to send to her father – who was worried about their meals.

The fridges were filled with cheese, milk, yogurt, mushrooms, tofu, frozen pasta, and vegetables. In the kitchenette, Jessica Van Roo, director of culinary education, demonstrated the art of making Vietnamese spring rolls filled with cabbage, carrots, basil and coriander and flavored with sriracha sauce.

“If you don’t know how to make food, we can show you,” she said to the students as they lined up for rehearsals. “You can get free food, but if you don’t know how to cook it’s a struggle.”

Campus Basic Needs coordinator Andrea Gutierrez, who will oversee the pantry, said nearly 44% of UC Irvine’s students do not have consistent access to nutritious foods. Almost 19% of these students are forced to skip meals and go hungry, while 25% eat regularly but get by on cheap but non-nutritious foods such as instant ramen or fast food.

Speaking to people who reject the food problem and believe instant ramen is a college staple, Gutierrez said, “A college student shouldn’t eat top ramen and be malnourished. We can no longer accept this as a reality. “

Students are allowed to take home two bags of groceries a week after confirming they understand that the food is intended for those who cannot afford meals.

Guillermo Paez, a fifth year sociology student, said he and other students who have trouble finding food often hide their problem. As a freshman, he couldn’t pay $ 3,000 on his university bill and lost his meal plan. At first he didn’t even tell his own mother, who works as a motel girl. He lived on such meager foods as carrots and peanut butter, and his grades were falling, he said, because he couldn’t concentrate. Finally he let his mother know and she scraped up the money to pay the bill.

The new pantry, he said, will be a godsend. “The students will know that they are not alone.”

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Twitter: @teresawatanabe

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