Yolo County social worker Connie Perez huddled over a table on a recent weekday helping a UC Davis student fill out an application for food stamps.
Perez said there is a misconception that students attending UC campuses aren’t in need of financial assistance. She was a struggling UC Davis student herself just three years ago. She didn’t know about the CalFresh food stamp program then and didn’t use the food pantry, instead working two jobs to make ends meet.
“It was a very difficult time,” Perez recalls. She said financial aid covered her tuition and left some money for books. “The living expense part of it was difficult.”
Forty-two percent of UC students receive Pell Grants – federal financial aid for students from low-income families – and more than half of UC students pay no tuition because of financial aid. But financial aid doesn’t cover all costs, especially those associated with food and shelter, and parents can’t always foot the bill.
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The “Student Food Access and Security Study” released by the University of California this month says 19 percent of its students sometimes go hungry because of limited resources, while 23 percent eat food of reduced quality and variety.
A study by the American College Health Association surveyed individual UC campuses in 2015. It found that 10.7 percent of UC Davis students sometimes go hungry, while 18.3 percent eat food of reduced quality and variety.
The result: students with high cholesterol, low body weight, diabetes and fatigue, said Ryann Miller, a registered dietitian with UC Davis Student Health and Counseling Services.
A graduate student was diagnosed with scurvy last year, a disease Miller called “super rare.”
“It was not taking the time to care for himself and eating pizza,” she said. “Grad students often sleep in their offices. They get really focused in what they are doing.”
More commonplace is fatigue brought on by a lack of iron, along with vitamin D deficiencies because students are studying inside and aren’t getting out into the sunlight, Miller said.
She said students often grab fast food because they don’t have time for grocery shopping or don’t know how to prepare foods, resulting in students with high cholesterol and blood pressure, as well as diabetes and prediabetes.
Nurses at the college refer these students to the food pantry and counsel them about their grocery shopping habits and ask whether they have places to store and prepare foods at their residence. Miller said college students often live in an apartment with many other people and just one refrigerator, making food preparation difficult.
Miller said food security and nutrition have been a problem throughout her 10-year tenure at the school. “This is the first time we have data that supports the understanding,” she said of the university’s research.
The Pantry at UC Davis serves about 250 clients a week. Most of the students aren’t there to enroll in the food stamp program. They are looking for help stretching their food dollars.
Recently, Jacky Wan stopped by for a six-pack of single-serving canned tuna. “It’s helped me a lot,” he said, The junior uses the money he saves on groceries to pay bills.
Wan said he also picks up free vegetables and fruit at the Student Health and Wellness Center as part of the Fruit and Veggie UP program, and has taken advantage of cooking and nutrition classes on the campus.
Students don’t have to prove they are low-income to use The Pantry, but they don’t walk away from the window with a bag filled with food either. Each student is allotted three points a day to purchase everything from canned peas to toilet paper. One point generally buys a small item such as a single packet of instant oatmeal or a can of food. Two points can buy larger items such as a cake mix or bag of cookies. Three points buys the six-pack of tuna, a full-size box of cereal, or bags of beans and rice.
A steady stream of students made their way to The Pantry in the basement of Freeborn Hall over the two hours it was open on a recent weekday, despite the summer break and scorching 100-degree temperatures. Some wanted soap, toothpaste and shampoo, while others wanted staples such as beans and rice.
The most popular item at The Pantry is ramen noodles, said Maria Wong, director. Students also want fruit, protein bars – anything they can eat on the run, she said.
The Pantry benefits from the campus Swipe Out Hunger program, which allows students to contribute leftover dollars on their meal cards to other students in need. The program donates some of those dollars – usually in the form of food – to The Pantry, as well as to the Yolo Food Bank and the Aggie Meal Share Program, which allows students to apply for scholarships to help them purchase food.
Fruit and vegetables from Nugget Markets and the Student Farm are distributed at The Pantry on Fridays, while produce from Nugget Markets is given away at the Student Health and Wellness Center in the Fruit and Veggie UP program on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
More than 2,000 pounds of food were donated to The Pantry from the Yolo Food Bank last year, but it also provided food directly to students at it distribution sites.
Each Friday morning the line at the Yolo Food Bank’s Woodland sites includes university students who moved to the community to take advantage of its lower rents, said Stephanie Villegas, food bank agency relations manager.
The food bank doesn’t collect data about the people who come for food – including whether they are college students – but, Villegas said, students are prominently represented at food distributions, particularly when produce is offered.
The American College Health Association report says 8 percent of the 2,000 UC Davis students surveyed said they had to choose between paying for food and medicine or medical care over the previous year. More than 13 percent said they had to choose between food and utilities or housing, while another 13 percent said they had to choose between food and educational expenses. Seventeen percent said they had difficulty studying because they were hungry and had no money for food.
Food insecurity has become a hot topic for the University of California, which allocated $75,000 to each campus last year to support student food access. This year, UC President Janet Napolitano allocated $3.3 million – roughly $151,000 per school – over the next two years to fight food insecurity.
As a result of the study, UC officials said they will increase awareness about resources on campuses, provide dedicated space for students to prepare and store food, expand campus food pantries, teach nutrition and cooking skills, and partner with community organizations to expand its programs.
The university currently operates food pantries at all 10 campus.
Food insecurity at UC Davis