Campus must continue to improve students’ access to basic needs

A bag of groceries
Ariel Lung/Staff

UC Berkeley has officially opened a campus Basic Needs Center. This monumental occasion is a celebration of students, staff, faculty, administrators, local community members and statewide community members who all came together to make it happen.

Despite these advancements, there were two key challenges that had to be overcome in order to open our center: moving from blame to understanding and moving from individual to community efforts. It is critical that UC Berkeley continue to improve the economic, food and housing — basic needs — experiences of our community, especially for community members with disproportionately higher rates of challenges.

As the 2008 economic recession hit, the number of students asking for help to pay for food and housing dramatically increased. After campus and systemwide advocacy, a question on economic insecurity and its relationship to skipping meals was added to the 2010 UC Undergraduate Experience Survey, or UCUES.

The 2010 UCUES results confirmed that 7 percent of students self-reported having to “often” skip meals, and 5 percent reported having to “very often” skip meals in order to save money. This data set validated at a systemic level what student leaders, advisers and health providers had already realized for a long time.

The results made some community members furious; others were shocked, and some even refused to believe the results, actively questioning the validity of the data. Despite the variance in community reactions, there was one consistent sentiment: Many people felt that financial aid staff members were not doing enough to combat this problem. Students themselves, along with staff, faculty and administrators looked to the financial aid office for an explanation as to why students were skipping meals.

After digging deeper into the UC Berkeley financial aid system, it became clear that food insecurity was a symptom of a much larger systemic crisis. Today, the majority of states have not recuperated their state dollars for public higher education to prerecession levels. The Pell Grant, which is our federal government’s largest investment to support the access, affordability and completion of higher education, is at a four-decade purchasing power low. Unfortunately, funding within California has not been able to support public higher education equitably to sustain — much less increase — funding for its public higher education system.

The policy and funding equation that generates our financial aid system for public higher education is broken, making this a systemic crisis. What makes it worse for students is that the Bay Area is one of the most expensive counties in one of the most expensive states in the country.

After years of research, strategizing and mobilizing, we have five ways in which to honor this portion of the conversation. This systemic understanding has helped us move from putting blame on financial aid staff to including them in the research, strategizing and mobilizing of efforts in support of student basic needs. The UC has now completed one of the largest studies in higher education on college student basic needs. All three California higher education segment student associations have united to improve financial aid and student basic needs. The California Student Aid Commission has unanimously voted to pursue a major reform to our largest state-specific financial aid grant: the Cal Grant. Finally, the United States is heading toward the reauthorization processes of the Higher Education Act with a commitment to improving access, affordability and student basic needs.

The massive policy, funding and systemic fixing that are required will take years. We cannot dismiss the existing poverty, hunger, homelessness and additional basic needs experiences and traumas that students are facing today. Currently, at UC Berkeley, 48 percent of undergraduates and 25 percent of graduates students experience some level of food insecurity, and 10 percent of all students experience homelessness.

One person, program, unit or division on campus cannot address this systemic crisis and serve the more than 14,000 students in need. UC Berkeley was the first campus to establish an institutional committee focused on student basic needs. Today, all 10 UC campuses have committees and focus on four areas: research, prevention, sustainability and advocacy.

The newly opened Basic Needs Center will centralize our UC Basic Needs Model into a single location. We are grateful for the multiple generations of ASUC executives who helped secure a five-year contract in the Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union. We are grateful for our UC Berkeley Basic Needs Security Committee that includes five campus divisions, the ASUC, the campus Graduate Assembly, the Alameda County Community Food Bank, Alameda County Social Services, the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board, the East Bay Community Law Center, individual alumni and individual community members committed to improving the basic needs of our community.

We estimate that the center will serve about 5,000 to 6,000 students, and we are fully committed to improving our efforts and scaling toward serving the more than 14,000 students in need. Until poverty and intersectional oppression are eradicated, community members will need support with their basic needs. We believe that with the opening of our campus Basic Needs Center, contributions to our Basic Needs Give Fund and funding support from the campus, the UC, the state of California and the federal government, we will make UC Berkeley a campus where all community members have equitable and dignity-centered support to sustain their basic needs.

To the community reading this that is currently struggling with economic, food and/or housing experiences: You’re not alone. Come to your campus Basic Needs Center. We are here with you. We will listen, and we will strategize the best ways to support you. With each community member we support, we learn how to be and do better. As we learn how to be and do better, we move toward changing budgets, policies and systems needed to improve the lives of current and future generations. Thank you for your courage.

Ruben Canedo is the chair of the UC Berkeley Basic Needs Security Committee.