Hungry for change

UC Berkeley students turn to community in struggle to feed families and themselves

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Alvin Wu/Staff

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Cynthia Leimbach’s cupboards last fall were the opposite of her course load: empty.

Without bowls, she and her young son would eat chicken noodle soup from the same pot it was cooked in, sharing a single spoon. Afterward, if they were still hungry, she’d dole out a back-to-school meal of canned tuna and saltine crackers.

An incoming student-parent at UC Berkeley, Leimbach faced 48 days without food stamps, a holdup caused by her move from Orange County. The numbers — 48 days, a few cans of food and an 8-year-old son — just weren’t adding up.

In the University Village area, where Leimbach and many other student-parents live, 7.81 percent of people received food stamps in 2012, according to Alameda County Social Services data. In 2013, it jumped to 10.21 percent.

But when it comes to cases of food insecurity, or the condition of being unable to regularly access nutritious and sufficient food, UC Berkeley isn’t necessarily in the spotlight.

For starters, it’s difficult for college students to access food assistance programs such as CalFresh,the state name for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program.

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Maggie Soun/Staff

Most students aren’t even eligible for SNAP benefits if they are enrolled in an institution of higher education for at least half time, according to federal rules.

But workarounds do exist. For example, if students are taking care of a dependent younger than 12 years old or work at least 20 hours per week, they may be able to qualify for benefits.

Once they qualify, though, students still have to jump through a series of hoops to prove their eligibility. Koko Mulder, University Village’s academic program coordinator, said students don’t always have the documents the Social Services office needs, such as tax filings and paycheck stubs, and misinformation abounds.

The food shortage Leimbach experienced when she first came to the campus-owned University Village wasn’t unusual, according to Mulder.

“Getting (SNAP benefits) moved over here is always, always an ordeal,” she said. “They wind up here with no food.”

Combating hunger crises

It was this kind of bureaucratic delay that spurred Mulder to found the Bear Pantry in University Village, an emergency food bank for student-parents.

While waiting for the campus financial aid office to disburse money, Mulder ran out of food and couldn’t feed herself, let alone her two growing daughters. She had applied for food stamps, but the overwhelming red tape she faced from Social Services made her wonder if help would ever come.

She turned to the closest community she had there: the social network of undergraduate student-parents who lived with her in Albany’s University Village. Through their extra food and dinner invites, Mulder and her daughters lasted the 11 days it took for food stamps to be issued. But the matter, she said, stayed on her mind for much longer than that.

Mulder said what struck her about the experience was that the parents who were helping her would talk about food emergencies as a recurring event. They used phrases like “when this happens to me,” which to Mulder reinforced the notion that food insecurity was a fact of life for most student-parents.

Rather than let empty stomachs and hungry kids become another inevitability, Mulder wanted to solve the problem.

“Canned peaches never looked so good…My son’s eyes lit up.”

—  Cynthia Leimbach, student-parent at UC Berkeley

In 2009, less than two years after her own food crisis, the Bear Pantry first opened for business.

From the start, the Bear Pantry’s goal was never to serve as a substitute meal plan, Mulder said. Rather, it is specifically intended for food crises, accessible just twice per semester to only UC Berkeley student-parents with demonstrated financial need. When they come knocking, Mulder provides them with a two weeks’ supply of food and a $30 gift card to pay for any perishables, such as milk, bread and produce.

Leimbach credits the Bear Pantry with keeping her and her son, Miles, from going hungry. After a community college friend who had also transferred to UC Berkeley told her about the pantry’s existence, Leimbach contacted Mulder to get her own bin of food.

“Canned peaches never looked so good,” Leimbach said. “My son’s eyes lit up.”

While the Bear Pantry doesn’t provide perishables, the Student Parent Association for Recruitment and Retention holds a weekly food pickup where student-parents can receive a free bag of fresh produce and other offerings, collected from local vendors that include Whole Foods and Noah’s Bagels. Volunteers such as Jeff Stock, a UC Berkeley senior and student-parent, haul crates of produce and bags of bagels to a designated pickup zone in University Village.

Even though Mulder has seen the Bear Pantry make a difference for hundreds of students, like Leimbach, she warned against treating food pantries as last-resort solutions.

Jeff Stock, a UC Berkeley senior and student-parent, hauls crates of produce donated from Whole Foods.

Jeff Stock, a UC Berkeley senior and student-parent, hauls crates of produce donated from Whole Foods. Katy Abbott/Staff

“I’ve always been the kind of person where I don’t want to be on the floor, putting up buckets because the roof leaks — I want to be up on the roof patching it,” Mulder said. “And I’m feeling right now like the Bear Pantry and the emergency food bank on campus are kind of bucket-on-the-floor things.”

Myths of full stomachs

There’s a mythology that college students are from “well-heeled” families and enjoy a greater level of affluence than their nonuniversity peers, according to Mulder. In addition, she said part of the problem is a lack of distinction between the students who attend private and public universities.

“We’re still fighting against a really old stereotype of the college kid phoning home for money,” Mulder said. “When people hear about college students, they do tend to attribute a greater level of affluence than the reality seems to bear out.”

In fact, Mulder said, the stereotype, at least in University Village, is the opposite: She knows a number of student-parents who save money from financial aid disbursements to send home to their parents.

UC Berkeley student-parents are overwhelmingly low-income and minority students, said Student Parent Programs and Services Director Ginelle Perez.

According to Perez, about 87 percent of undergraduate student-parents are Pell Grant recipients, a common indicator of low-income status, while approximately 52 percent are from minority backgrounds that have been historically underrepresented in higher education.

Among all UC Berkeley undergraduates, 33 percent of students received Pell Grants in the 2012-13 academic year, according to the 2013 undergraduate profile.For comparison, 16 percent of Stanford University students received Pell Grants during the same time period.

Cultivating a community

In between Ocean View Elementary School and an Arco gas station in Albany lies a community farm where people harvest anything from bok choy to muskmelon.

The Gill Tract, a historic piece of East Bay land that once stretched from San Pablo Avenue to the bay, now comprises 10 to 20 acres, depending on whom you talk to, of viable agricultural land next to University Village. The Gill Tract Community Farm is part of that legacy.

Jon Hoffman, 65, oversees work at the farm. He envisions its potential as the heart of the community, pumping out resources to feed those in need. To do that, however, he wants all 20 acres of remaining land to be used for community farming.

“I’m feeling right now like the Bear Pantry and the emergency food bank on campus are kind of bucket-on-the-floor things.”

— Koko Mulder, University Village’s academic program coordinator

The university maintains that the Gill Tract comprises only 10 acres and plans to build a senior center and a Sprouts grocery store on the other 10. The disagreement between the two parties stretches back several years; in April of 2012, protesters first set up encampments on the land as part of a movement called Occupy the Farm.

Since then, protesters have been locked in a battle with the university over the rights to the land. They have tried tactics such as a second occupation in 2013, a petition and a boycott of Sprouts. Given the university’s response to their demands, many on the farm expressed skepticism of the UC Global Food Initiative, announced this summer, which is intended to reshape the global food system.

While Vanessa Raditz, a graduate student at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health, praised the initiative, she also said there was a lack of support for local programs such as the community farm, with which she is actively involved.

Students for Engaged and Active Learning, a coalition of campus students and alumni involved in the campaign for all 20 acres, took to Twitter and Facebook in July after the food initiative’s launch with hashtags such as #walkyourtalk and #localfood in response to the university’s use of the hashtag #globalfood to promote the initiative.

“You can think global, but you have to act local,” Raditz said. “There’s no way we can have a global food system that’s equitable if we don’t have equity on our own campus.”

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Alvin Wu/Staff

Launched by UC President Janet Napolitano, the initiative’s first phase will include a local component that focuses on projects within the UC system. This will include an emphasis on experiential learning about sustainability and food systems that will help develop practices for implementing change internationally. But Raditz said paving over part of the historic Gill Tract highlights what she called the hypocrisy of the university’s actions.

“It’s not like we’re asking them to go out and buy a farm,” Raditz said. “We have a farm.”

Nurturing nutritional knowledge

For students who can’t make the three-mile trip to the community farm, sustenance lies in the back room of Stiles Hall, located on the corner of Bancroft Way and Dana Street.

On a recent Monday afternoon, students trickled out of the UC Berkeley Food Pantry, which opened for business this spring, arms full with items such as cereal, Gatorade and chicken Alfredo.

Hector Rios, a UC Berkeley junior, carried containers of microwavable meals. He first tried the beef stew that morning, and he came back for more.

“It was really hearty,” Rios said. “I definitely have to be full throughout my day, because when I get hungry, I get really grouchy, and I don’t do my work.”

Two days per week, for about four hours each day, students can come into the pantry and take three items from the shelves, provided they show their student ID. There is no limit on the number of times students can come in, according to Jorge Vargas, a student coordinator for the pantry.

“It’s not like we’re asking them to go out and buy a farm…We have a farm.”

— Vanessa Raditz, a graduate student involved with the Gill Tract farm

Vargas doesn’t want to just provide boxes of cereal and packaged soup to the food pantry’s patrons — he wants it to become a place of nutrition awareness. He said the pantry has already started going in that direction by working with a Tang Center dietician to make the pantry a place where students can learn about diversifying their nutritional intake.

“Even though we were eating, we were still starving”

For UC Berkeley Food Pantry volunteer Michelle Smith, this effort hits particularly close to home.

“As a kid, I would stuff myself with potato spuds … I’d open up a can of whatever gravy was available, and that was my meal for my brother and I,” Smith said. “I didn’t know that even though we were eating, we were still starving.”

Mary Henderson, a lecturer in the department of nutritional sciences and toxicology, said part of the issue is that students don’t necessarily have the skill sets or the knowledge to budget both time and money to produce nutritious home-cooked meals.

“If you go out to any grocery store, to be honest, it’s very overwhelming,” she said. “To be able to understand what might be a more nutritious versus a less nutritious item, it takes some time.”

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Alvin Wu/Staff

Henderson also attributed part of the cause to housing trends on campus; although UC Berkeley guarantees housing to most undergraduates for two years, more than 70 percent of undergraduate students choose to live off campus, often without the meal plan and the convenience it brings.

For campus junior Olivia Rodriguez, who picks up food at the pantry, missed meals happen because she and her housemates don’t always have time to cook. Skipping meals has become routine for UC Berkeley students, Rios thinks, because commitments such as classes, clubs and research that leave no room to take a break for meals have become the norm.

Tuyen Nguyen, the coordinator for the Associated Students Food Bank at UC Santa Barbara, said when the food bank first opened back in 2011, about five students came in each week. Now, the pantry sees about 900 visits a week, an increase that Nguyen attributes in part to the rising overall cost of attending college, including housing costs.

“We’re still increasing, because it’s just the way the tuition and the amount of housing cracks are happening,” Nguyen said. “Because of those deep institutional issues, those needs are always going to be there.”

Raditz believes the issue is ingrained at every level of the food system, starting from farmers who grow the food to the restaurant workers who serve it.

“Food insecurity isn’t some accident,” she said. “Our system is designed in a way where food insecurity is inevitable.”

Henderson called food insecurity among college students an “emerging issue” and said rising costs of everything, from food to tuition, are part of the problem.

Back at University Village, Leimbach wants to raise awareness of the issue, especially because food provides fuel essential to learning and development.

“You’d be surprised at how many people here skip lunches and eat only one meal a day,” Leimbach said. “It’s a shame that anyone would feel they have to suffer in silence.”

Contact Katy Abbott at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @katyeabbott.

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Clarification(s):
A previous version of this article referred to the community farm at the corner of San Pablo and Marin avenues in Albany as the Gill Tract farm. In fact, its full name is the Gill Tract Community Farm and is a portion of the larger Gill Tract.

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  • CAL

    The universe works in mysterious ways. I had nothing to do with this, but suggest you take this as a period of reflection, as you do not represent yourself in a fair or just manner. So long and good riddance.

    • Mel Content

      Somebody flagged and deleted my post – it didn’t just happen all by itself. Given that you were the one that protesteth the loudest, don’t act surprised when people point fingers in your direction…

  • AnthonySanchez

    Fantastic article. Thank you so much for such thorough coverage of an under-reported subject -the barriers and stark choices faced by the low-income community, including students.

    Thank you!!!!!

  • Village Residents Association

    Rent increases in family housing play a HUGE role in the food insecurity
    problem student families face. To read more about this and to sign a
    petition asking the administration to make good on the promise of affordable family housing go here: http://chn.ge/1v6SF1g

  • CAL

    Walk a mile before you judge someone Mel. Not that its any of your information, but I held down two jobs that summer, while saving to cover costs associated with moving. This article was written to help eradicate poverty & remove unfounded negative stigma’s just like yours.Ever heard of compassion?

    • Mel Content

      I have compassion for those who try to make it on their own, not those who collect welfare and food stamps. The fact that we are turning into a nation of people who are dependent on some form of government handout at every turn is disgusting and pathetic, as well as a danger to our individual freedoms. BTW, why isn’t the baby-daddy picking up the bills?

      • CAL

        Allow me to educate you. Many transfer students & student parents who return to academia work harder than you will ever know to qualify as temporary Cal-Works students. There are time limits in place to ensure we attain our degrees (while woking numerous jobs) within a timely manner. “We” are NOT morphing into government dependent recipients. Rather, are extremely pro-active and community based, making more progress during this limited time to create and implement the lasting change our nation needs. If you want to talk “danger to our individual freedoms”, I suggest you turn your attention to actual national racial atrocities, occurring RIGHT NOW. And while you’re at it, look at recent immigration issues as well. Sounds as if you could benefit from a re-education. Perhaps you should apply to the # ONE PUBLIC UNIVERSITY in the WORLD and BE the change you want to see. Your audacity towards the presumption that a “baby-daddy” even exists speaks to your ignorance. Ha!

        • Bilderberg

          Sperm-donor, then?

          • Mel Content

            Apparently, which was why it hit a nerve…

          • Red_Geologist

            How’s that Early Childhood Development degree from Cal State East Bay working out for you Bilderbung?

          • Mel Content

            How’s your dogmatic adherence to a totalitarian philosophy that has enslaved and murdered hundreds of millions, commie boy?

        • Mel Content

          I see my remarks got flagged and deleted once again. It must be tough when you have to silence the opinions of others because you lack the mental capacity and/or writing ability to refute comments you don’t like…

  • Mel Content

    Leimbach faced 48 days without food stamps, a holdup caused by her move from Orange County.

    Poor baby. There are plenty of us who managed to get through Cal on our own without having to get food stamps. Ever hear of a summer job?