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UCI Food Pantry Coordinator Discusses Plans for Development and Expansion

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By Ian Edwards

Since the opening of UC Irvine’s first food pantry in Oct. 2015, the campus has been implementing programs to expand its impact on campus, helmed by Andrea Gutierrez, the Food Access and Security Coordinator at SOAR.

UC Irvine students involved in the Food Pantry inititative pose in front of the Pantry housed in UCI’s SOAR Center.

Across all nine campuses in the UC system, approximately one in four students skip meals in order to save money, according to a 2010 UC survey of undergraduates. In response to these widespread student food insecurity issues,  UC President Janet Napolitano allocated $75,000 to each campus in 2015 to increase food security measures. Napolitano also spearheaded a program called the Global Food Initiative in July 2014
in order to tackle these food issues with student engagement.

UC Irvine is the latest campus in the UC system to implement a food pantry program, following UC San Diego in February of 2015 and UC Riverside in June of the same year.  UC Santa Barbara was the first to open a pantry with full student body access in 2011.

In the pilot year of the Food Pantry program at UC Irvine, Gutierrez claims that food pantries are the first and immediate effort in the addressing of food security efforts on campus.

According to Gutierrez, the UCI food pantry has been accessed 1,062 times since its opening four months ago and currently consists of two bookshelves stocked with a supply of non-perishable food items.

The issue of food insecurity is not one that affects solely the UC Irvine population. Los Angeles County — home to the largest portion (39 percent) of UC Irvine’s fall 2015 enrollees from California, according to the Office of Institutional Research — has 1.5 million residents who lack the funds to buy an adequate amount of food, making it the most food insecure region in the entire country, according to the “Los Angeles Times.”

Additionally, Orange County, with a poverty rate of 12.4 percent, is the second largest country of origin among UC Irvine students from California. The “Orange County Register” has reported that approximately 615,000 residents of Orange County — or 21 percent of the county’s population — are food insecure.

First-generation students, another demographic heavily affected by food insecurity, make up 51.1 percent of UC Irvine’s freshman class. This proportion has skyrocketed since 2006, when the first generation population of freshman students at UC Irvine was 28.7 percent.

The SOAR office at UC Irvine works closely with these heavily-affected students in order to ease these excess strains, says Gutierrez. The Food Pantry program gives first-generation students free breakfast each Tuesday and Thursday in a program called “Cup of SOAR,” which also serves to connect them with other first-generation students undergoing the same struggles.

Gutierrez argues that UC Irvine has made good headway in building stronger food security measures on campus despite the pantry’s relatively small campus presence and limited resources. In cooperation with the Orange County Food Bank and the College and University Food Bank Alliance (CUFBA), UC Irvine’s food bank has been working on improving community-wide policies and on engaging with other campus organizations such as the ARC and ASUCI.

Even so, the ways in which other colleges and university systems are dealing with this lack of food security facilities are outpacing UC Irvine, despite most other UC food pantries being only a few months or years older than UC Irvine’s.

For example, UC Berkeley was given their own extra-campus facility in summer 2014 to house their food pantry. UC Santa Barbara has recently taken up a student fee referendum to help fund their food pantry, which has been steadily expanding since its opening in 2011.

At UC Irvine, the Associated Students of UC Irvine (ASUCI) are currently working on a similar joint referendum, titled The Food Pantry Initiative, which would add three dollars each quarter to student fees to fund the pantry’s expansion.

Beyond financial challenges, UC Irvine’s pantry and Gutierrez’s office are working to match the progress of other UC campuses with other innovative programs.

The office is working to create an outdoor food distribution event so that students are able to have access to fruits and vegetables which the  food pantry currently cannot store due to lack of refrigeration facilities.

Outside of the food pantry, SOAR provides cooking lessons at the ARC for students who have little nutritional awareness and lack cooking skills on a budget. They also currently run cooking and nutritional workshops which have been well-attended, according to Gutierrez.

“It is my mission to change the mentality that hunger is a part of the college experience,” she says.

Following their discussion at the UC Irvine Food Security Summit on Jan. 22, the SOAR office is holding a follow-up meeting on Feb. 18 from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., to address student concerns and discuss plans for the Pantry’s future development.