UC Berkeley must meet students’ growing basic needs, surpass bare minimum

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Basic needs involve far more than just food, water and shelter. College campuses must work hard to support students’ mental health, housing and financial needs, among many others, because if even one of these areas is not met, it becomes increasingly difficult for a student to succeed.

As a first-generation college student and former foster youth, I have struggled to meet my basic needs. And I understand how this struggle can affect academic performance. If you are constantly wondering where your next meal will come from, how can you be expected to think about an essay due tomorrow?

Although meeting students’ basic needs has always been a challenge, the issue has garnered broader attention in recent years. In 2016, 44% of UC undergraduates and 26% of graduate students faced food insecurity, and 5% of UC students faced homelessness. In response to the challenges of students, policymakers in California passed a multimillion-dollar 2019-20 budget that included allocations for student hunger and housing initiatives across UC, CSU and California community college campuses.

But this data was recorded before COVID-19 hit, and the number of students struggling to meet their basic needs has likely increased given the economic strain posed by the pandemic.

An October survey conducted by UC Berkeley found high rates of major depressive and generalized anxiety disorder among students on campus. As many students experience a decline in their mental health, 49% of those who qualify for work-study also reported that they were looking for a work-study job.

All students are just trying to stay afloat right now. The last thing any of us should be worried about is finding a job so we can afford rent.

So how can campus improve conditions for its students? UC Berkeley must begin by prioritizing investments in administration-led basic needs initiatives and giving these initiatives visible space and resources on campus.

As an undergraduate student, I received funding from the Wellness Fund to launch the Food for Thought project. I started the project to help build the basic needs skills of fellow foster youths. Demand was there, and we expanded to the broader campus community over the course of a few years. Now, the program has seven life skills seminars, offers a fellowship and also has a scholarship program.

The U.S. education system generally doesn’t teach us how to navigate food choices or make a budget — just a few of the necessary skills campus assumes you have when you enroll.

I was just a student when I created the Food for Thought program. UC Berkeley’s food pantry was also a student-led response to food insecurity in the campus community. Students worked with Stiles Hall, a local nonprofit, to create a space for the pantry. But why are students often tasked with solving the equity gaps they themselves are facing?

While it’s important for students to imagine and implement new programming, campus administration should meaningfully lead these initiatives. Currently, it seems UC Berkeley is relying, at least in part, on students themselves to create and fund programs they need.

More funding could be directed to full-scale campus programs that address basic needs and simultaneously create work-study jobs. Any excess funding from student fees or sectors of the campus should be marked to prioritize students’ most pressing needs.

Along with funding, more visible space should be made for basic needs programming. As an undergraduate student, I experienced time poverty: I worked multiple jobs just to afford my rent alone, which left me unable to look for resources during any free time I had. It’s difficult for students to navigate college and other responsibilities while also finding services to address their specific challenges and focusing on supporting themselves.

Through sustained outreach, UC Berkeley must take a pulse check on what programming exists and find places for these programs to grow and, importantly, become more visible and easily accessible to all students.

We currently have the Basic Needs Center as a central hub for food, housing and financial support. With its limited space, the center hosts a wide range of services. Full-time staff members and student staff work to expand the center’s offerings and reach more students, but the space is hidden in the basement of the Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union — a location that is not easily visible unless you are purposely looking for it or stumble upon it.

UC Berkeley should consider constructing a free-standing building for basic needs and other equity programs and also include classrooms for life skill development programs such as Food for Thought. Campus could also make a larger food pantry with a teaching kitchen and offices for individual case managers to help students facing homelessness secure long-term housing. A set of emergency shelters could also be constructed.

We have given the Basic Needs Center a physical space in the student union and seen the impact it’s had there. With a larger and more visible space, the center would see its outreach to students in need increase exponentially.

We know students are being hit hard during the pandemic. We as a campus need to reaffirm our commitment to providing basic needs — without placing the burden on those who need them most.

Ryan Farquhar is a graduate student at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, a founder of Food for Thought and the graduate student researcher for the Basic Needs Committee.