While food insecurity has been exacerbated by the pandemic, it has also brought to light an issue that was already present. With about a quarter of UC Berkeley students seeking basic needs assistance, campus and student organizations have worked to address student food insecurity, among other concerns.
So far in the 2020-21 year, more than 19,000 students have asked for assistance from the campus Basic Needs Center, and the campus Food Pantry has been visited more than 18,500 times, according to the center’s live data dashboard. While there is no data on the impact of COVID-19 on campus food insecurity rates, the UC Undergraduate Experience Survey shows that 16% of students experience low food security and 18% of students experience very low food security on campus.
“Food insecurity and other basic needs concerns have a negative impact on students’ mental health, academic performance, as well as persistence and graduation rates,” said Kiyoko Thomas, Basic Needs Center director, in an email. “Our campus Basic Needs Center offers a robust model of prevention, intervention and emergency relief efforts addressing holistic needs including food security.”
Basic Needs Center services include CalFresh assistance, the Food Pantry, the Food Assistance Program and the Bear Pantry at University Village, according to Thomas.
CalFresh is California’s implementation of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and provides a monthly allowance of up to $204 for qualified individuals to buy groceries, Thomas said in the email. Christy George, CalFresh outreach lead at the Basic Needs Center, added that CalFresh aligns with the center’s focus on preventative care by working to prevent emergency food insecurity.
“Our team has trained student ambassadors who are able to assist with application assistance for CalFresh,” George said. “We have direct contact with the Alameda County, and their staff assists students directly as well.”
In addition to providing application assistance and spreading awareness about the program, the Basic Needs Center can also help when a CalFresh application is denied, according to George. The center helps students appeal their denials through a collaboration with UC Berkeley School of Law’s Food Justice Project.
Student organizations on campus have also stepped up to combat student food insecurity. Mutual Aid at Berkeley was started in January 2021 to support existing campus resources and help students get financial support easily, according to co-founder Mallika Luthar.
“A lot of us had seen GoFundMe pages by our peers who were housing or food insecure,” Luthar said. “In response to the increased need of the Berkeley community, we wanted to provide another outlet for students to generate funds.”
While still a small club, Mutual Aid at Berkeley offers a straightforward aid request system and distributes grants of more than $150 with a quick turnaround, according to Luthar. She stressed that Mutual Aid at Berkeley is an exchange among equals and seeks to build on top of other campus resources.
Many students request funds from Mutual Aid at Berkeley after going through other channels unsuccessfully, according to Luthar. Typically, she added, this is because applications for CalFresh and other resources can be long and complicated.
“For a student trying to pay for basic needs, that is an incredible burden on top of taking courses,” Luthar said. “I’m glad we’re able to help out in some way.”