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.
“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.
“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