Illustration by Kaileen Smith
Illustration by Kaileen Smith

The college student living off of microwave ramen has become a trope in popular culture. It becomes much less endearing, however, when the student is in the next room over, and their mental and emotional health are at risk.

Over a quarter of University of California undergraduate students said they experience some degree of food insecurity, saying that they “somewhat often” or “very often” skip meals to save money.

As tuition rates continue to rise, students are sacrificing food to afford books and living expenses, and rates of food insecurity are almost 6 percent higher within the UC system than the national average. In a letter to UC students, Alexander Fung, the administrative affairs vice president of associated students at UC Irvine, issued a call to action.

“The inability of our students to have easy access to three nutritious and healthy meals a day severely hinders their learning capabilities and academic performances,” Fung wrote. “In the UC system, food is treated as a revenue generator rather than a basic need […] Student wellness must be implemented as a metric of success in addition to graduation rates.”

The UC has enacted a Global Food Initiative (GFI) to combat this issue, with the goal to completely eradicate food insecurity in the UC system by 2020. Last March, UC President Janet Napolitano allocated $75,000 to each campus to implement new programs.

At UC Santa Cruz, this money has gone to dining meal vouchers and Safeway cards distributed by the Slug Support Program, and has also helped create new internships through the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS). Crystal Owings, the food equity and access specialist at CASFS, said this initial investment isn’t enough to sustain the programs needed.

Students and faculty were inspired to create the California Higher Education Food Summit (CHEFS) in 2015 at UC Santa Barbara. This year’s summit, which took place at UC Irvine, had almost double the registrants as last year, with about 300 students attending.

The three-day summit consists of workshops, speakers and discussions on food insecurity and methods to combat it. Victor Garcia-Zepeda, Merrill student government chair, acknowledged how much the event opened his eyes to the wide reach of food insecurity at UCSC.

“Not having affordable options for food can be sometimes really difficult, and you have to sort of rely on the cheaper options, and for the most part those options aren’t always healthy,” Garcia-Zepeda said, noting  that this decision often leads to health complications.

As a statewide supporter for the CHEFS, Owings believes it’s a necessity to bring awareness to food insecurity. Before the event, she met with other UC campus leaders as part of the UC-wide food security and access subcommittee, which is working on a proposal of a four-year model to the Global Food Initiative (GFI) for the next school year. The proposal will consist of a holistic food center and other resources to strengthen communication and access to supplemental food programs.

“A lot of people just don’t want to think about it, but there are students who are going through food insecurity everyday,” Owings said. She is hopeful the UC regents will increase the funding statewide, and that the GFI reaches its goal in the next four years.

Tim Galarneau, CASFS research and education specialist and system-wide food access security workgroup co-chair, is optimistic about change at UCSC. He helped start “Strengthening the Roots: Food, Justice and Fair Trade Convergence” at UCSC, an event addressing food security and sustainable sources of food. It was hosted by CASFS for five years before the Office of the President started the GFI.

“The cost of living and the cost of attendance are so high now, so when students accept their financial aid, they don’t realize that it might not cover everything,” Galarneau said.

Because there are many other expenses piling on students, he worries that food may be the first to go.

“I’ve been really excited and blown away to see the energy, response and passion of folks really committed to this work at UCSC,” Galarneau said.

Garcia-Zepeda said UCSC was the biggest group at the summit. Seeing the dedication from others motivated him to want to do more.

“I was getting goosebumps while I was there,” Garcia-Zepeda said. “It was really inspiring to listen to all the students’ stories and really work as a collective to engage in this conversation and lead toward a common goal.”

The students from UCSC talked about creating their own task force to combat food insecurity on campus and are working to get it recognized by the GFI.

Garcia-Zepeda and other students suggest that those who are in need of help make use of the resources available on campus. Between the food pantry, the Farm Produce Pop-up Stand, Slug Support and CASFS, students, faculty and staff are bringing UCSC closer to food security every day. With support from the regents and an expansion of the GFI, the campus can truly achieve their goal of “no more starving students.”