The Fight against Food Insecurity Has Moved on Campus

The Vanguard reported a few weeks ago, that student participation rates in CalFresh and other food programs were very low.  As a result of initial meetings, and an overall concern at the UC-wide level about food security, UC Davis has set up programs like Aggie Compass through a dedicated location in the Basic Needs Center in the Memorial Union to better find ways to serve the needs of students.

The Vanguard sat down with Leslie Kemp, the Director of the Aggie Compass Basic Needs Center; Melinda Gutierrez, the ESS Program Supervisor for Yolo County; and Max Vega, who is the full time county administrator assigned to UC Davis to help students access CalFresh and other services.

As Supervisor Don Saylor and County Administrator Nolan Sullivan explained previously, one of the keys to educating students about the availability of services was to make sure that they brought services to the students – that meant setting up locations in the Memorial Union and Freeborn Hall, making it easy for students to access them.

Leslie Kemp explained, “This center came about because the UCs in general were thinking about food security (and) were putting their attention about four years ago to how we could address food security on our campuses.”

As a result, they created several programs and supported their food pantry, which was already in existence.

“One thing I noticed is that we had some resources for students about food, but students didn’t tend to know about them,” she said.  In response to focus group findings that showed students were not aware of what was available, they created a website with all of the food options in Davis and on the UC Davis campus, including CalFresh.

The Basic Needs Center is located right inside the MU

“About 18 months ago, the UC started paying attention to basic needs in general,” Ms. Kemp explained.  A UC-wide student survey came out on both food and housing security.  “What we learned was the food insecure population on the UC Davis campus is about 44 percent.”

A key question, though, is what that number means.

“We use the USDA’s definition for food insecurity,” she explained.  The problem is that the 44 percent combines low food insecurity with very low food insecurity and those are measuring very different things.

“Very low food insecurity is when an individual cannot afford food, and is skipping meals,” she said.  “In other words, they are actively missing meals because they cannot afford it.”

On the other hand, low food insecurity occurs with students or individuals “who are concerned that they will miss a meal – they’re not sure where their next meal is going to come from, they’re not sure whether the food this month is going to last,” she said.  “That goes to the chronic stress around having enough to eat.”

The problem is that they don’t know how that 44 percent breaks down. 

“I wish I did,” Ms. Kemp said.  “That’s what we’re going for when we develop the next survey.”

To better address these problems, UC Davis opened the Basic Needs Center on June 14, 2018.  Its first full term was this past fall.

Max Vega has a desk with the student workers located to the right

“We picked this space because part of what we’re trying to do is get past the stigma of needing help, of needing CalFresh,” she explained.  “So the idea is to bring these services above ground and be out in the middle of the MU and normalize the need.”

Even before the center opened, the county had assigned Max Vega to spend a few hours a week at the Food Pantry – located in Freeborn Hall – until the building is leveled, at which point it too will move into the Memorial Union.

When the center opened, “It made sense to collaborate with Max (and the county) and have a permanent desk in here,” she said.

Most of Aggie Compass’ services revolve around food.  They provide primarily crisis resources, such as a food closet with non-perishable food items in collaboration with the ASUCD Pantry. 

“(This is) part of what we call crisis resources,” she said.  “If a student comes in that is in a food or housing crisis, then we have a conversation, they figure out what is going on, and they can fill up an entire grocery bag.”

At the same time, “we sit and talk with them about the other food resources on campus and in Davis.”

Their first goal at the basic level is to stabilize the student’s situation and then figure out what to do from there.  She noted that 70 percent of their walk-ins are asking about CalFresh.  But if they don’t qualify for CalFresh, then they discuss what other options there are available.

Max Vega explained that the first contact for students at the Basic Needs Center is with the Aggie Compass Staff, who try to answer any questions the students may have.

Most students, however, are interested in applying for CalFresh.  The students have the option of applying on line or they can schedule an appointment to do the interview with Max Vega himself.

“I assist them with the actual application while simultaneously completing their interview all at the same time,” he explained.

The tricky part is “there are a series of requirements that students must meet in order to qualify for CalFresh,” Mr. Vega explained.

Students must either be a US Citizen or hold a lawful permit to work in the US.  There are income requirements – for a single person household, that limit is $2024 per month, a requirement almost all students would meet.

There are further requirements for students – they must be doing 20 hours a week of work, a CalGrant (A or B), part of the Economic Opportunity Program (EOP), and there are a number of others.

One thing that no one seemed to know was what percentage of students are eligible.  “Students have an added hurdle,” Melinda Gutierrez explained.  “They must get an exemption if they’re full time.”

“We are trying to target students who have those current exemptions by working with UC Davis directly,” she explained.

The situation has improved over what was described by Don Saylor and Nolan Sullivan previously.

“I think with Yolo County being on campus and publicizing on campus about CalFresh eligibility,” Ms. Gutierrez stated, many more students are aware of the programs available for them.

Leslie Kemp pointed out that they had Max Vega come onto campus but there was “not a huge push to promote CalFresh” until recently.  She said, “That’s probably a lot of what Don Saylor was working on with the county and with UC Davis.

“The first time we started talking about this partnership was maybe about four years ago,” she said.  At that time, Yolo County was not on campus at all.  “At the same time, the UC attention to food security was ramping up.

“It all kind of came together over the last few years,” she said.

There is also a program called “Code For America.”  The state of California partnered with a private company to create a student-friendly interface for the CalFresh application.

“We have a dedicated student interface,” Ms. Kemp explained, allowing the whole process to only take 10 to 20 minutes.  “Whereas in the past, it was very clunky and difficult to understand.”

Max Vega initially started out at four days or five days a week, but just a few hours a day at different locations – EOP, Pantry, or Fruit & Veggie Up! programs.

Once the Aggie Campus opened up, on June 14, Max Vega started full time on campus.  He now take appointments all day and works on cases to make sure that documents are turned in and applications are complete.

The Vanguard also met with Brianna Hodge, Aggie Compass Manager, and Annie Adachi, who is in charge of the pantry run by ASUCD.  It was founded eight years ago and is now all student-run.

Brianna Hodge, a fourth year in sociology, explained that she is primarily focused on projects along with her co-manager.  Her project is a food justice poster getting various centers involved in collaboration.

“I also want to do a meal kit, where they find food that is non-perishable and put it into ziplock bags with recipe cards,” she said, explaining that students can take that food and cook it in their microwaves.

Finally, she is working on a basic needs assessment form, “so when students visit their website, they can, click on a button to request a form,” she added.

Annie Adachi runs the food pantry, open five days a week and serving all students.

“We distribute a variety of shelf stable goods,” she said.  “We also partner with the Student Farm to bring produce,” as well as receiving food from the Yolo Food Bank.  That’s how they receive most of the food products they give out.

She explained that at first students may be “shy” or feeling “uncomfortable” but “there’s a variety of students.” 

Like others, she pointed out that they are attempting to “normalize the fact that students need help” and pointed out that many students “don’t even know that they’re food insecure.”

As Max Vega explained it, “the barriers are the same as they used to be.  Stigma, that’s the number one thing.  There’s a lot of stigma about seeking help.

“Obviously, fighting that stigma has been very difficult but that’s why I inform the students about how CalFresh works and what it is,” he added.

The big change, though, is they are visible and accessible to students.  Moreover, with a permanent location, Max Vega is not moving around and therefore it is far easier for students to find him in order to access the CalFresh resources.

—David M. Greenwald reporting


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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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14 Comments

  1. Matt Williams

    Annie Adachi runs the food pantry, open five days a week and serving all students.

    She explained that at first students may be “shy” or feeling “uncomfortable” but “there’s a variety of students.” 
    Like others, she pointed out that they are attempting to “normalize the fact that students need help” and pointed out that many students “don’t even know that they’re food insecure.”

    As Max Vega explained it, “the barriers are the same as they used to be.  Stigma, that’s the number one thing.  There’s a lot of stigma about seeking help.

    “Obviously, fighting that stigma has been very difficult but that’s why I inform the students about how CalFresh works and what it is,” he added.

    The big change, though, is they are visible and accessible to students.  Moreover, with a permanent location, Max Vega is not moving around and therefore it is far easier for students to find him in order to access the CalFresh resources.

    .
    When discussing college student food insecurity over the years (both regarding UCD specifically and nationwide more broadly), I have asked whether student food insecurity (for the most part) is by choice rather than by chance.  The quoted statements of both Annie Adachi and Max Vega go to the heart of that problem.

    As I have said numerous times, the best place to be addressing the needs of food insecure students is through programs provided by the university/college they are attending.  Specifically, what I said to Kristine Gaul here in the Vanguard is what I most strongly believe is the best approach, “wouldn’t it be even better if the University actually addressed its student food insecurity challenges by making CalFresh membership a part of the financial aid packages that are awarded to students coming from actual low income backgrounds?  I believe Bernie Sanders would be a strong supporter of such a solution.”   

    This program by UCD and the County appears to be a substantial step in that direction.  I strongly support these new efforts that UCD and Yolo County have initiated, and I commend them for doing them … even when that program blurs the lines of strict adherence to the bureaucratic rules of the CalFresh program.

    1. David Greenwald

      “When discussing college student food insecurity over the years (both regarding UCD specifically and nationwide more broadly), I have asked whether student food insecurity (for the most part) is by choice rather than by chance. The statements of both Annie Adachi and Max Vega go to the heart of that problem.”

      Their comments is that there is a stigma attached with seeking services that has to be overcome in order to get students to access them.

      1. Matt Williams

        David, are you familiar with the faces of Janus?

        Succumbing to stigma is a choice … and as both Annie Adachi and Max Vega allude to in their comments, succumbing to stigma is also human nature.

        Helping students understand understand human nature should be part of the educational mission of a University.

        1. Craig Ross

          There are two basic barriers to students accessing services.  First, lack of awareness.  Aggie Compass and the Basic needs Center moving to the MU is helping big time with that.

          Second, there is a stigma associated with it.  Many students are proud.  I understand Matt that you’re calling that a choice, but I think that’s helpful.  What’s helpful is breaking down those barriers.

          There is a third point that I think you keep missing and I think David missed as well – why are students not able to afford food?  As David has previously reported and I agree – we dont’ spend a ton on food.  A big factor is cost of housing, cost of materials, etc.  That’s a piece missing here.

        2. Matt Williams

          Actually Craig, I haven’t missed your third point at all.  In fact I have discussed that third point at length in past posts on this subject (see LINK) To jog your memory I have copied and pasted one of my past engagements with your third point below

          David, the question I have asked many times about UCD student food insecurity also applies to college student food insecurity nationwide.  Is student food insecurity (for the most part) by choice rather than by chance?

          To focus the discussion of that question a bit, what is your estimate David of the percentages of college students that fall into the following three categories? (1) students not experiencing food insecurity, (2) students experiencing food insecurity who have access to the fiscal resources needed to no longer be food insecure, and (3) students experiencing food insecurity who do not have access to the fiscal resources needed to no longer be food insecure.

          From your article the sum of category (2) and category (3) is approximately 30% (see “However, 22 of the 31 studies estimated food insecurity rates of 30 percent”).  

          I believe the reason that question is meaningful is that any solution to food insecurity should focus on the students in category (3).  They are the ones who really need help … and can fiscally demonstrate that they need the help. 

          As I have said numerous times before, the best place to be addressing the needs of category (3) students is through programs provided by the university/college they are attending.  As I said to Kristine Gaul, “wouldn’t it be even better if the University actually addressed its student food insecurity challenges by making CalFresh membership a part of the financial aid packages that are awarded to students coming from actual low income backgrounds?”  I believe Bernie Sanders would be a strong supporter of such a solution.  

          The students in category (2) are faced with a learning opportunity … a part of the maturing experience that attending college is purported to be.  they can practice a bit of self discipline, communicate with their parents, realistically budget their money and time to maximize the value of their college education, and very quickly leave category (2) and join the ranks of category (1).  The choice is theirs to make.

          .
          The realities of the comments by Annie Adachi and Max Vega are that stigma affects students in all three categories.

          The realities of the joint UCD/Yolo County program are that the program is not restricted just to category (3), but I don’t see that as a reason to criticize the program. It may not be perfect, but it is a definite step in the right direction.

        3. Todd Edelman

          making CalFresh membership a part of the financial aid packages

          .
          Once one is enrolled in EBT, it’s very rare to have to come to a County office in person. With the EBT card – unlike the “food stamps” of years ago – shopping looks more or less like it does for anyone else. Very often the next person in line doesn’t see that you’re getting food assistance. Hot items and alcohol either roll over to a second card or the purchaser doesn’t buy those items in the first place. 

          In order to further avoid any social stigma, how ’bout a kind of interim step that UC Davis might be able to do on their own: It seems it would be useful to know if they could issue an “AggieFresh” card — It would allow students to not only access food at stores which they normally might get at the pantry, it could also allow them to eat on campus the same as anyone else, so that they can join a friend, classmate etc. at the CoHo without reservation. Sure, perhaps this could be a discount only. 

          By the way it should also be mentioned that Farmers’ Markets in Yolo double up to $10 per visit for fresh fruits and vegetables. This can stretch EBT significantly and allow participants to enjoy Farmers’ Market the same as anyone else!

          That’s a piece missing here.

          .
          Exactly. It would be great to see more precisely how food insecurity relates to rising rent… and to raising rent.

        4. Matt Williams

          Matt says: “Succumbing to stigma is a choice…”

          I’m not sure I understand how that is so. Could you explain?

          .
          Robert, we are all creatures of free will.  Succumbing to social pressures like stigma can be avoided if we dispassionately exercise that free will and set our fear aside and triumph over those social pressures.

        5. Alan Miller

          why are students not able to afford food?

          When I was going to UCD, I knew several people who we’d joke, “they have a choice between spending their money on beer or breakfast.  They choose beer”.  [Feel free to substitute other intoxicates.]

          We considered it a joke, but it was actually real.

  2. Robert Canning

    Matt says: “…[W]e are all creatures of free will.  Succumbing to social pressures like stigma can be avoided if we dispassionately exercise that free will and set our fear aside and triumph over those social pressures.”

    These are very noble ideals, but do not fit with what we know about social groups and how stigma arises. Reducing stigma is not an individual action or behavior, it is interconnected with others’ attitudes and stereotypes. Simply because an individual dispassionately exercises free will does not mean the stigma will disappear. A denial of the interconnectedness of social relationships doesn’t make stigma disappear.  I suggest you start with Erving Goffman and go from there.

    1. Matt Williams

      Reducing stigmas is not an individual action or behavior, it is interconnected with others’ attitudes and stereotypes.

      .
      I disagree wholeheartedly Robert.  The Serenity Prayer is a well established method for reducing stigma through individual action.

      Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,the courage to change the things I can,and the wisdom to know the difference.

      Simply because an individual dispassionately exercises free will does not mean the stigma will disappear.
      It does if they do it well.

      .
      I agree wholeheartedly, Alan. Stigma affects someone’s life if they invite it into that life.

  3. Craig Ross

    So basically the university is trying to get students to access the services and Matt’s advice to students is “get over it” while at the same time questioning the severity of the problem.

    1. Matt Williams

      No Craig, my advice to students is not to “get over it” but rather to “step up and avail themselves of the services being offered.”

      What you see as “questioning the severity the severity of the problem” is simply Critical Thinking (Root Cause Analysis) at work.  The question I have forcefully and repeatedly posed is whether what you have described as the problem is really the problem, or only a symptom of a set of underlying problems, some of which are disconnected from others. 

      Using Alan Miller’s “they have a choice between spending their money on beer or breakfast … they choose beer” example posted above, is the problem food insecurity, or is that only the symptom of a much more fundamental and important underlying problem?

      Similarly, in the example of a middle-class student who has access to the fiscal resources of his/her family, but chooses to assert his/her independence from those “shackles of oppression” and as a result ends up with not enough money to avoid being food insecure, is the problem food insecurity, or is that only the symptom of a much more fundamental and important underlying problem?

      Or how about the student who chooses to have a car in Davis rather than a bicycle, and after paying the ~$200 per month car loan payment and ~$200 a month car insurance payment ends up with not enough money to avoid being food insecure, is the problem food insecurity, or is that only the symptom of a much more fundamental and important underlying problem?

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