It’s widely known that hunger and food insecurity are critical issues around the country and in the Central Valley, but college students may not come to mind as being among those increasingly affected. While the rising enrollment of low-income and non-traditional students at colleges represent positive change, it has also transformed the term “starving college student” from a semi-joke to a very serious matter. Students who must choose between tuition, books, rent, or food often end up compromising their health or their education—sometimes both.

The Giant Pantry at College of the Sequoias has been actively addressing these challenges by providing access to emergency food for students in need for almost four years. Serving 811 students in the past fiscal year (a jump from 452 the previous year), it’s clear that the pantry has made an indelible impact on the campus and those who benefit directly from it.

When a survey taken by the college’s Health Center in 2013 showed that 37 percent of the students experienced some form of food insecurity, a task force comprised of administrators and staff formed to develop solutions. Among the first steps was a partnership with FoodLink of Tulare County in early 2014 to bring their fresh fruit and vegetable market program “Nutrition on the Go!” to the Visalia campus. A partnership with Community Food Bank began in 2016, bringing their monthly fresh food market to the other two campus locations.

The Giant Pantry was launched in Oct. 2014 with 600 pounds of food collected in the first annual “Together We Can” on-campus food drive. Through ongoing COS Foundation grants, community donations (including money for a refrigeration unit from the Gilman family), and the annual food drive, the pantry is able to serve an expanding number of students each year. Health Center staff currently manage the pantry, but there will be opportunities for students to volunteer in the future.

Cynthia Norvall, R.N., Student Health Center Nurse at the Visalia campus, calls herself the “mom” of the food pantry, having been instrumental in its creation and a key player in its ongoing success. In August she presented information about the Giant Pantry at the fall kick-off for new students. “I told the students, ‘Please don’t make this something that it’s not;’ the pantry is simply another student service, and there’s no reason to be embarrassed or hesitant to ask about it. We endeavor to remove any stigma that may be assigned to it.” (The service is confidential for those who use it.)

During an interview with Lifestyle, Cynthia helped a student shop in the pantry, bagging her items and suggesting additional foods for her family. Students are encouraged to take what will be of use to them. Visits to the pantry are geared to be very need-specific, with some students visiting once each month, while others are there weekly.

Alejandra and Anna are both students who use the Giant Pantry and mothers who were struggling to provide the food their families needed. Anna, a divorced single mom of two boys ages 10 and 14, came to the college in the spring semester. The amount she receives from welfare and food stamps compared to the actual cost of living leaves a void that is difficult to fill. She had been on campus for a week when she saw a sign about the food pantry; she completed the interview form and had a confidential meeting with Cynthia where she provided details about her circumstances.

In addition to confirming her ability to receive support at the Giant Pantry, Cynthia informed her about student employment options on campus, food distributions on all campuses, and food pantries in her city. Anna was anxious to share her story because she believes that open and frequent dialogue will empower students to ask for the help they need. “We have so many students going hungry. Students need not be embarrassed or afraid…they need to focus on themselves to get where they need to be.”

Alejandra, a mom of three young boys, began taking English as a Second Language classes in May, 2016. Although she and her husband had been discussing more children and employment for Alejandra, she made school her priority, confident that education would help her obtain a better job. Just before classes started, her husband lost his job, and though he quickly found a new one, he was injured at work and had to take time off. Under the stress of making ends meet and providing food for her family, Alejandra met with Cynthia and was given access to the food pantry and counseling to help her cope with her stress. Although the ESL curriculum in the second and third semesters is very difficult, Alejandra has not only excelled, she is also 20 pounds lighter, feels healthier, and her children are learning about eating a balanced diet. She started her last class in August and will finish this December, after which she will pursue a job that will help move her family toward financial—and food—security.

In addition to the upcoming October food drive, Cynthia is preparing for the Nov. 28 Giving Tuesday Campaign to encourage cash donations from the local community and beyond. A luncheon will be held on Oct. 4 for invited potential Community Ambassadors who would like to build support for the Giant Pantry through their social media networks. Student representatives will be there to share about their experiences with the pantry, helping potential ambassadors “put faces to names and meet the people we are endeavoring to serve.”

For Anna, Alejandra, and hundreds of COS students, the Giant Pantry has helped to fill a financial void and reduce the stress of how to pay for the foods they need. With relief from the burden of hunger and food insecurity, they are able to focus on their studies and move toward a brighter future.

 

For more about the Giant Pantry and how you can help, visit www.cos.edu/About/Foundation/Pages/Giant-Pantry.aspx, or call (559) 737-6241.