By Carol Lawson-Swezey
It’s hard to concentrate when your stomach is rumbling or when you have to decide between paying tuition or rent. At Fresno State, nourishing a student’s body is as important as nurturing their mind.
The Fresno State Food Cupboard, which provides Fresno State students with access to free food and hygiene items, opened on Nov. 24 of last year. It is located in the Post Harvest Building (the former Farm Market) on Chestnut and Barstow avenues. The cupboard, an agency within the Fresno Community Food Bank, has been funded through the university for this year, but also relies heavily on community and private donations.
For undergraduate communications major Christian,* the cupboard came at the “perfect time.”
“My dad helps with my tuition and rent,” he said. “But he said to figure it out for books and food. I am thankful for this opportunity.”
Part of a multi-level food program, the cupboard came to fruition when Public Health faculty member Alida Espinoza wrote her master’s thesis on food insecurity among Fresno State students and presented it to President Joseph Castro and his cabinet. An advisory board headed by Dr. Frank Lamas, the Vice President of Student Affairs and Enrollment Management, was created and the seven initiatives of the Food Security Project were born.
“I selected to research food insecurity because I was greatly affected by hunger as an undergraduate student,” Espinoza said. “At that time, there was no real mention of the term ‘food insecurity’ and I thought I was the only one struggling with such severe food shortages. As a result, I felt ashamed and did not share my experience with anyone.”
The advisory board studied other campus food insecurity programs and gleaned what they thought would work and was needed on the Fresno State campus. Fresno State also joined the College and University Food Bank Alliance.
The seven initiatives are being assessed during this first funded year, with the Student Cupboard being the most highly visible and successful so far. In the first 19 days they were open, the store served 191 students. Up until the end of January, more than 400 students have visited the pantry. Pretty impressive considering the store is open only Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons for three hours and for five hours on Friday.
“Our Student Cupboard is an important academic success initiative for Fresno State students,” Lamas said. “It empowers our students and is a key factor impacting their wellness. This service allows them to fully experience college without concern for their nutrition.”
Other initiative segments include education on food and nutrition, dietetics and finance and referrals to other community resources; vouchers for the campus Paws-N-Go market; Gift Buxx and the Good Samaritan Fund. The Good Samaritan Fund is donor financed through the President’s Circle of Excellence Fund. Past situations funded have included replacement of textbooks because of theft or fire, temporary housing and health or dental costs.
The Mobile App program, which should be launched in about a month, is a convenient and immediate way to communicate to food insecure students where food is available at the conclusion of campus catered events. Because of health codes, the food is not allowed to be saved.
Work is currently underway to launch the Missed Meals facet. When resident students miss their prepaid cafeteria meals, they are normally lost at the end of the semester. With this program, those meals are reallocated to be used by hungry students. For the Gift Buxx and the Missed Meals program, students need to show an immediate need in food insecurity. For the Good Samaritan Fund, there has to be a catastrophic event that impedes student success.
To access the student cupboard, the only requirement is to be a current Fresno State student. At the cupboard, the students are able to pick limited numbers of items from each shelf, up to 50 items over a two week period. The cupboard, in its temporary location until May, plans to eventually occupy a larger and more permanent place on the perimeter of the campus.
“We want students to be successful, and that is what the Student Cupboard is there to help with, “said Jessica Medina, the project coordinator. “As we continue to grow, the limits may decrease for students as our order from Community Food Bank increases. Either way, we will never let a student go hungry. We will ensure there’s food on the shelf for every student who comes in.”
The program works with marketing classes and hosts presentations in classes and at student events to get the word out. Medina said the response to the Student Cupboard has been overwhelmingly positive, both from recipients and community donors. Operations Assistant Brenda Hartman, a nutrition major, is the everyday face of the cupboard, doling out recipes and a listening ear to students she now knows by name.
“Our students are so thankful that we’re providing a service that allows them to focus on classes instead of wondering where their next meal is coming from,” Medina said.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, a continuous stream of students came in to browse and shop among the layered shelves, including computer science graduate students Kalyani, Preeti and Bharti, who took the city bus to get to the campus cupboard.
“If not for this cupboard, we would be out of food,” Kalyani said.
For interior design student Thanh, the cupboard has become a food source that she can count on.
“There’s a huge difference in costs from my country (Vietnam) and here; everything seems so expensive,” Thanh said. “With this, I can make sure I never go hungry.”
The food security program is one that is dear to Mary Castro, the wife of the Fresno State president Joseph Castro. She also serves on the initiative’s advisory board.
“The Fresno State Student Cupboard is the newest way that our campus is able to support students in reaching their goals,” Mary Castro said. “Helping our students overcome food security issues is very important and personal to President Castro and me. It is given in love from our campus to our students. We strongly believe that student success will be affected in a positive way by the implementation of this and the other six initiatives that have been developed to meet this need.”
Donations and volunteers are always welcome. More information is available online at fresnostate.edu/foodsecurity.
*Only student’s first names were used in this article to protect their privacy.