Illustration by Ania Webb
Illustration by Ania Webb

California college students frequently choose between eating unhealthy meals or skipping them altogether. Food insecurity is a continuous issue for students. The University of California Global Food Initiative (GFI) found about 42 percent of UC students reported having experienced a reduced quality of diet or reduced food intake in the 2014-15 school year.

In an attempt to address this, Christopher Nellum, policy director for Young Invincibles, along with California Assembly members Shirley Nash Weber and Monique Limón, are creating AB 214 and AB 453. These bills would increase student access to food pantries, CalFresh — California’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — and meal sharing programs on college campuses across the state.

“There is a common surface-level joke that being in college means that you eat ramen or skip meals,” Nellum said. “That is a misconception that we need to push back on.”

The College Student Hunger Relief Act of 2017 (AB 214) and Student Anti-Hunger Program (AB 453) are bills the assembly members and Nellum have worked on since 2016 when studies found that about a quarter of California State University students and about 12 percent of California Community College students were food insecure.

AB 214 was introduced earlier this year by assembly member Weber in hopes of relieving hunger among California college students. The bill would increase education surrounding student eligibility for CalFresh, and make it easier for students to access it.

AB 453 will be introduced April 24 by Limón and would instate a “hungry free campus” designation for universities. It would require campuses to have a designated employee to help students enroll in CalFresh, a food pantry, a meal sharing program and an employee designated as the point-of-contact for the meal sharing program.

At UC Santa Cruz, the dean of students already works with students through the Slug Support Program, oversees the CalFresh application assistance program and coordinates the operations for the Dean of Students Office’s food pantry. This would make it fairly easy for UCSC to receive the AB 453 designation.

“The Dean of Students Office has stored food in the office to distribute to students, and has grown over the years to support refrigerated items and more dried good options,” said Mario A. Gonzalez, the Dean of Students project assistant and pantry project manager. “Our staff meets with students individually to identify their concerns and provide the assistance they need to be successful.”

The on-campus food pantry will be opening in May, housed inside the Office of Physical Education, Recreation and Sports (OPERS) building.

Despite UCSC’s potential eligibility for a “hungry free campus” designation, 57 percent of food insecure UC students did not experience food insecurity before college, according to the UC GFI survey.

UCSC’s Food Systems Working Group helps improve student access to healthy food while supporting organic and ethical agriculture. Co-chair Carlos Lemus said the organization is focusing on food insecurity and access to affordable produce.

“The other frustrating thing is you do one thing to improve food insecurity and you realize how much insecurity there is and […] how many other students we have been neglecting for the past years” Lemus said. “People […] sort [of] feel embarrassed of whatever personal obstacles prevent them from seeking help.”