Food insecurity climbs among Bay Area college students as COVID-19 pandemic continues

Illustration of a student giving another student a bag of food
Jamie Scott/Staff

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More than 40% of college students have experienced food insecurity in some form or fashion, according to Feeding America — however, a vast number of food shortage cases fly under the radar due to the embarrassment many feel.

The Bay Area has become difficult to afford, a problem only expected to get worse due to rising inflation from the pandemic. The average cost of renting an apartment in the Bay Area is $3,140 each month, while the minimum wage in the Bay remains $16.32 — meaning that someone would have to work more than 190 hours per month in order to pay rent while working minimum wage, without accounting for other costs such as food, transportation or school supplies.

Berkeley Food Pantry director Dharma Galang said multiple food banks across the Bay, including the Alameda County Community Food Bank, are struggling to maintain the needs of people at very low food security and need it the most.

Campus director of strategic equity initiatives Ruben Canedo said meal programs such as the Berkeley Food Bank have stated people continually visiting the meal program had no signs of stopping their visits and said many have been limited due to the lack of funds for grocery products under rising inflation. Meat products, for example, have seen some of the most extreme cases of price inflation.

“Large price increases for beef, pork, and poultry are driving the recent price increases consumers are seeing at the grocery store,”  states a White House press release from September 2021. “Together, these three items account for a full half of the price increase for food at home since December 2020. Since that time, prices for beef have risen by 14.0%, pork by 12.1%, and poultry by 6.6%.”

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service Food Access Research Atlas, which tracks food insecurity in all cities in the country, the majority of UC Berkeley students are in a low-income and low-food-access area of Berkeley.

Campus freshman and Bay Area resident Karla Aguilar shared her experiences during her first semester at UC Berkeley. Like many, her eating habits changed drastically upon arriving on campus.

“I dropped 5 pounds from the first month I was here,” Aguilar said.

Aguilar added she primarily used her electronic benefits transfer, or EBT, because she was worried about stories she had heard about campus dining halls.

EBT cards can be used to redeem public assistant benefits from the state. These may include food and cash aid benefits such as CalFresh, which provides people who meet income eligibility rules with benefits that can be redeemed at grocery stores or farmers markets for food products, according to the California Department of Social Services website.

When asked if she had heard of any campus resources for food insecurity, such as the Basic Needs Center, and other food pantries provided, she admitted she had only heard of the Berkeley Food Pantry.

Aguilar shared the expenses of food around the campus had been a large part of her lack of eating and said she applied for EBT to combat the high prices.

“I feel a lot more drained constantly; I will be in a class and just fall asleep if I haven’t eaten anything,” Aguilar said. “It puts me behind and it is not beneficial.”

Aguilar also called attention to the lack of affordable dining for low-income students around campus, saying such students had fewer food options.

The problem, Aguilar alleged, is that the campus’s resources for food-insecure students are insufficient. She alleged that because students from higher economic classes are not directly affected by food insecurity, they would be less inclined to care or help the administration understand the struggles lower-income students face.

Aguilar also noted that the stores nearest to the campus, Safeway, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, are all higher-income food stores, which has affected her EBT.

She explained that no food she buys can go to waste due to high prices at these stores and said she must shop extremely carefully.

“$200 seems like a lot, but when looking at the prices at Trader Joe’s, only one item is $7,” Aguilar said. “They’ve generalized that everyone that goes here has a prestigious f— life.”

Aguilar also questioned the number of fast-food restaurants near campus when many college students do not have enough money to pay for fast food over groceries.

As she finishes her first semester of college, Aguilar’s feelings about school had drastically changed from those of excitement to frustration.

“I was so naive to being an adult when I first came here. I don’t think I was prepared enough to come here,” Aguilar said. “It’s so much more difficult and complicated than just going to class.”

Her indignation with the lack of food security for students on campus, she said, deeply upset her and ruined the illusion she had of campus.

In addition to her food struggles in Berkeley, Aguilar shared that her family faces similar circumstances, making her issues on campus all the more difficult to handle.

“They have made the living conditions here impossible,” Aguilar said. “I remember when COVID-19 made the prices of food insanely high, and they still are.”

To remove some of the monetary weight that comes with living on campus, Aguilar emphasized that the Berkeley Food Pantry could help a lot of students dealing with food insecurity.

The Berkeley Food Pantry is open to these students and others on campus dealing with food insecurity. The pantry allows community members to receive groceries in an emergency at no cost. Located at 1600 Sacramento St., the pantry is open Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. for walk-ins or appointments.

Another resource for students struggling with food insecurity is the Berkeley Student Food Collective. The collective works to bring food to students dealing with food insecurity on campus.

Located on Bancroft Way next to RareTea Berkeley, it is accessible from Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. and weekends from noon to 7 p.m. for students who sign up to visit. The collective accepts EBT and offers subsidized prices based on the financial situation of students.

Students may also visit the Basic Needs Center, which is open to the entirety of the campus community. Throughout the pandemic, it has remained open on the first floor of the MLK Jr. Student Union building. In an effort to assist students during the pandemic, the center began delivering food to students who are positive with COVID-19 or who cannot afford to pay for groceries.

The center has focused its work into two groups to address both short-term and long-term needs for students.

“For short-term needs, the Basic Needs Center (BNC) operates the Food Pantry that is open to the entire UCB community (including undergraduate, graduate, staff, visiting scholars, students researchers, post docs, and faculty),” Canedo said in an email. “For long-term needs, the BNC provides information and application assistance for CalFresh, which is the state’s version of SNAP/EBT. CalFresh is able to award eligible students up to $250 per month for groceries.”

During the pandemic, assistance for the application for CalFresh was moved to virtual assistance to meet the needs of students who could not meet in person.

Canedo also noted that students not eligible for CalFresh are allowed to use the “one-time short-term emergency food assistance” that is a part of the Basic Needs Center’s Holistic Fund.

A select number of undocumented and graduate students who are unable to receive the Holistic Fund rewards are assisted by funds granted from the Basic Needs food awards, which provides them with a 10-month disbursement fee similar to CalFresh.

“While anecdotally we know students are benefitting from accessing these resources, we are actively working on enhancing and building out our data and reporting processes,” Canedo said in the email.

Contact Luis Saldana at [email protected].